Distributive policy

Virginia extends free school lunch eligibility as pandemic policy expires

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A pandemic-era policy providing free school meals to all students nationwide has now expired. Meanwhile, Virginia lawmakers are expanding the number of people eligible for state-level assistance.

President Joe Biden recently signed the “Keep Kids Fed Act,” which expanded some tools to help school nutrition programs and struggling families days before those waivers expired.

However, the bipartisan legislation did not extend a provision that made school breakfasts and lunches free for all students, regardless of family income.

This means that Sadiqua Chambliss, the mother of three Richmond Public Schools students, will no longer be eligible for aid.

“I will be impacted but not as much as other families because the economy is in such a bad shape right now. Gas is five dollars a gallon. Bread is three dollars. So I think that’s a shame. The Congress really needs to rethink this thing,” Chambliss said.

The US Senate also rejected an effort to provide no-cost meals to students who previously qualified for discounted meals.

“Thankfully, Virginia is stepping up to help ease some of that burden,” said Cassie Edner, public benefits attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC).

The Virginia General Assembly has agreed to extend free meals to this group. The new state budget, which took effect July 1, includes $8.2 million over two years to help local school divisions eliminate the cost of breakfast and lunch at school for students eligible for discounted meals based on federal income criteria.

No Kid Hungry Virginia expects an additional 64,500 students to be eligible for free meals as a result of this change. The group says that historically about 600,000 students in the state have relied on free or reduced-price meals.

A soon-to-be-released VPLC report shows that by the end of the 2019-20 school year, 127 school divisions had accrued about $2.4 million in school lunch debt, according to Edner. She said it was probably an undercount.

Even with expanded eligibility in Virginia, Edner fears this problem will resurface.

“You’re still worried about the school debt going up but, more importantly, you’re worried about the kids, you know, not being fed,” Edner said.

Congress has extended other pandemic-era waivers that could help, but some scare action has come too late in some cases.

No Kid Hungry Virginia director Sarah Steely said lawmakers paved the way for take-out and delivery models to continue for summer meals this year.

However, Richmond Public Schools Advocacy and Outreach Director Matthew Stanley said the division was only offering dining service this summer because it made plans before the bill passed. . He said they are considering resuming those options but, in the meantime, they expect turnout to decline.

Steely said the United States Department of Agriculture has not yet given formal guidance to school divisions and it is unclear how many will be able to pivot. The USDA is expected to host a webinar on Thursday with more information.

“That’s what we hear from a lot of program operators,” Steely said when asked about the RPS situation. “In a way, it was too little too late, which is frustrating.”

Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, who represents Virginia’s District 7, said she would have liked to see lawmakers go further, but she thinks the legislation will still have an impact.

“What we’ve adopted is substantial in that it will provide a lot of flexibility to our school districts,” Spanberger said.

Steely said the legislation gives school districts the ability to substitute foods due to supply chain issues through June 2023.

It comes as 92% of school districts nationwide cite difficulties getting the food they need due to ongoing delivery disruptions and nearly 75% report staffing issues, according to No Kid Hungry Virginia.

Text FOOD or COMIDA to 304-304 to find free summer dining sites hosted by school districts and community organizations.