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Friday, May 24, 2024

Legislation Calls for Free School Meals for all Virginia Students

Photo by Comstock Images on Freeimages.com

RICHMOND — A bill that would provide free meals for all public school students in Virginia passed the Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday, Jan. 18.

“This is about making sure that every kid who goes to school gets fed — no questions asked,” said Sen. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, the patron for Senate Bill 283, earlier this month.

The proposal would cost an estimated $346 million over the next two years.

Some Republicans including Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, balked at the cost.

“I just obviously do not want any child to go hungry and do not want any child who cannot afford a meal to go hungry, either breakfast or lunch, but I just think at this point, I’m not quite ready to say that the commonwealth is going to pay for breakfast and lunch for every child in the commonwealth when you got [wealthy] counties,” Peake said. “I just don’t see that we should take general fund dollars to pay for breakfast and lunch in some of the wealthiest counties in the commonwealth.”

Roem noted even Virginia’s wealthiest counties, such as Loudoun, have schools that qualify for federal school lunch programs and have significant school meal debt. Furthermore, she said, many families fall just outside the eligibility limit for free and reduced meals.

Catherine Ford, a lobbyist representing the School Nutrition Association of Virginia, contended the state should be putting funds toward universal meals.

“We believe that just like textbooks, just like school buses, just like desks, that meals should be provided to children at school,” Ford said.

Proposal

If passed, all public school divisions in Virginia would be required to make meals available for free to any student unless their parent had notified the school board to not do so.

The state would reimburse schools for each meal.

Currently, only schools that qualify for the federal Community Eligibility Provision can offer all students free meals. Schools qualify for the CEP if a certain percentage of their students are classified as low-income.

Previously the federal government set that threshold at 40%, but this September the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered it to 25%, a change it said would “give states and schools greater flexibility to offer meals to all enrolled students at no cost when financially viable.”

Roem’s measure would expand free meals to even those schools that don’t qualify for the CEP.

The legislation would also require school boards to adopt policies to maximize their use of federal funds for free breakfast and lunch and create a workgroup to study the potential impact of offering guaranteed school meals.

A step beyond earlier legislation

Roem said this year’s proposal is an extension of a 2020 bill she successfully carried that required divisions to apply to enroll any schools in CEP that qualified for it.

Generally, Roem said school breakfasts in Virginia cost $34 million per year, while lunches cost $138 million.

During a Jan. 11 hearing on her newest proposal, Roem said that because of the 2020 legislation, 44 schools in Prince William County, which lies in her district, have zero school meal debt compared to more than 50 schools that just enrolled in the CEP this year and had together collected $291,256 of school meal debt in the first semester of the prior year.

“Not every single student who attends a CEP school can’t afford their own breakfast and lunch,” Roem said. “A lot of them come from families that can, but most of the students … have enough insecurity at home financially that they need help, and collectively, we’ve decided it’s in our interest, it’s in the student’s interest and it’s the parent’s interest to make sure that we are taking care of everyone at the school.”

Adelle Settle, founder of nonprofit Settle the Debt, which raised roughly $250,000 last year to pay down the lunch debt for students in Prince William County, said she often hears from parents “who earn just over the threshold to receive free or reduced meals for their students, but they’re still struggling and they need help to pay for those school meals.”

Meal debt, Roem also said, is “money that could’ve gone into other areas such as a classroom or computer lab.”

“And frankly, if the federal government isn’t going to do its job, as far as I’m concerned, of fully funding universal free school meals for all, then we’ve got to step in and take care of our student constituents,” she said.

The bill now goes to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Addressing food insecurity in higher education

Roem is also carrying Senate Bill 318, which would create a grant program to address food insecurity among students at public colleges or universities in Virginia.

The bill is also heading to Senate Finance and Appropriations.

“With college enrollment still lower than it was pre-pandemic, addressing food insecurity can help students afford tuition and housing so they can stay in school and graduate on time,” she said.

Under the program, public institutions could apply for grants to address food insecurity.

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