Virginia is set to become one of the first states in the nation to provide free meals for all public school students, regardless of their income level. A bill that would make this possible passed the Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday and is expected to be approved by the full General Assembly soon.
Why free meals for all students?
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, said that providing free meals for all students is a matter of equity and dignity. She said that many students face food insecurity and hunger, which affects their health and academic performance. She also said that the current system of applying for free or reduced-price meals is cumbersome and stigmatizing for some families.
“This is about making sure that every kid who goes to school gets fed — no questions asked,” McClellan said. “We know that when kids are hungry, they can’t learn. We know that when kids are worried about being hungry, they can’t learn. We know that when kids are embarrassed about being hungry, they can’t learn.”
McClellan said that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem of food insecurity among students and their families. She said that many schools have been providing free meals to all students during the pandemic, thanks to a federal waiver that allowed them to do so. However, that waiver is set to expire at the end of the school year, and schools will have to go back to the traditional system of requiring applications and verifying income eligibility.
How will free meals for all students work?
The bill would create a universal school meal program that would cover the cost of breakfast and lunch for all public school students in Virginia. The program would be funded by a combination of federal, state, and local funds. The federal government would reimburse schools for a portion of the meal costs, based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the federal income criteria. The state would provide additional funding to cover the gap between the federal reimbursement and the actual cost of the meals. The local school divisions would also contribute a small amount to the program, based on their ability to pay.
The bill would also eliminate the need for families to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals, which can be a barrier for some families who may not have access to the internet, may not speak English, or may fear disclosing their immigration status. The bill would also eliminate the possibility of students accruing meal debt or being denied a meal if they cannot pay.
The bill would also allow schools to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program, which is a federal option that enables schools with high percentages of low-income students to provide free meals to all students without collecting applications. Currently, 84 school divisions in Virginia participate in the CEP program, serving about 600,000 students. The bill would encourage more schools to join the CEP program by providing state funding to offset the local share of the meal costs.
What are the benefits of free meals for all students?
Supporters of the bill say that providing free meals for all students would have multiple benefits for the students, the schools, and the communities. Some of the benefits include:
- Improving the health and nutrition of students, which can lead to better physical and mental well-being, lower rates of obesity and chronic diseases, and higher attendance and graduation rates.
- Enhancing the academic performance of students, which can lead to higher test scores, better grades, and more engagement and participation in class.
- Reducing the stigma and shame associated with receiving free or reduced-price meals, which can affect the self-esteem and social-emotional development of students.
- Saving time and money for families, who would not have to worry about packing lunches, paying for meals, or filling out applications.
- Saving time and money for schools, who would not have to process applications, collect payments, track meal debt, or deal with unpaid meal charges.
- Supporting the local economy, by creating jobs and increasing the demand for local food products and services.
What are the challenges of free meals for all students?
Opponents of the bill say that providing free meals for all students would be too costly and unnecessary. They argue that the current system of providing free or reduced-price meals to eligible students is sufficient and fair. They also argue that the bill would create a dependency culture and discourage personal responsibility among families. Some of the challenges include:
- Increasing the state budget, which would require more tax revenue or spending cuts in other areas.
- Reducing the federal reimbursement, which is based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. If more students receive free meals, the federal reimbursement rate would decrease, leaving a larger gap for the state and local funds to fill.
- Wasting food and resources, by providing free meals to students who do not need them or want them. Some students may not eat the meals or may throw them away, resulting in food waste and environmental impact.
- Encouraging unhealthy eating habits, by providing free meals that may not meet the nutritional standards or preferences of some students or families. Some students may prefer to bring their own lunches or buy snacks from vending machines or nearby stores, rather than eating the school meals.
What are the next steps for free meals for all students?
The bill has received bipartisan support and endorsement from various groups, including the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia School Boards Association, the Virginia PTA, the Virginia Hunger Solutions, and the No Kid Hungry Virginia campaign. The bill has also received positive feedback from some school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, who have experienced the benefits of free meals during the pandemic.
The bill is expected to pass the full Senate and the House of Delegates, and be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam, who has expressed his support for the bill. If the bill becomes law, it would take effect in July 2024, and would apply to all public schools in Virginia, including elementary, middle, and high schools.