RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A pandemic-era policy giving free meals to all students nationwide during the school year has now expired. Meanwhile, Virginia lawmakers are expanding who is eligible for assistance at the state level.
President Joe Biden recently signed the “Keep Kids Fed Act,” which extended some tools to help school nutrition programs and struggling families days before those waivers were set to expire.
However, the bipartisan legislation didn’t extend a provision that made school breakfasts and lunches free to all students regardless of their families’ incomes.
Sadiqua Chambliss, the mother of three students, was disappointed to hear the news.
“The economy is in such a bad state right now. Gas is five dollars a gallon. Bread is three dollars. So I think it’s unfortunate. Congress really needs to rethink this thing,” Chambliss said.
The U.S. Senate also rejected an effort to provide meals at no cost to students who previously qualified for reduced-price meals.
“Luckily, Virginia is stepping up to help reduce some of that burden,” said Cassie Edner, a public benefits attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC).
The Virginia General Assembly agreed to expand 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 school breakfast and lunch for students who are eligible for reduced-price meals based on federal income criteria.
No Kid Hungry Virginia expects 64,500 more students will be eligible for free meals because of this change. The group says, historically, about 600,000 students in the state have relied on free or reduced-price meals.
A soon-to-be-released report from VPLC shows, that at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, 127 school divisions had accumulated roughly $2.4 million in school meal debt, according to Edner. She said that’s likely an undercount.
Even with the expansion of eligibility in Virginia, Edner fears this problem will resurge.
“You’re always concerned that the school debt is going to increase but, more importantly, you’re concerned that the children, you know, aren’t going to be fed,” Edner said.
Congress extended other pandemic-era waivers that could help but some fear action came too late in some cases.
No Kid Hungry Virginia Director Sarah Steely said lawmakers paved the way for grab-and-go and delivery distribution models to continue for summer meals in 2022. She said all kids can continue to eat for free through the Summer Meals Program.
Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Director of Advocacy and Outreach Matthew Stanley said the division is only offering dine-in service this summer because they made plans before the bill passed. He said they’re looking at resuming those options but, in the meantime, they expect the turnout to decrease.
Steely said the United States Department of Agriculture has yet to give formal guidance to school divisions and it’s unclear how many will be able to pivot. USDA is expected to hold a webinar on Thursday with more information.
“That’s what we’re hearing from a lot of program operators,” Steely said when asked about RPS’s situation. “In some ways, it was too little too late, which is frustrating.”
Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, who represents Virginia’s District 7, said she would’ve liked to see lawmakers go further but she thinks the legislation will still have an impact.
“What we have passed is substantial in that it will provide a lot of flexibility to our school districts,” Spanberger said.
Steely said the legislation gives school districts flexibility to make food substitutions due to supply chain problems through June 2023.
It comes as 92% of school districts nationwide cite trouble sourcing the food they need due to ongoing delivery disruptions and nearly 75% report staffing challenges, according to No Kid Hungry Virginia.
Certain high poverty school districts, like RPS, will continue to offer free meals to all students.
Text FOOD or COMIDA to 304-304 to find free summer food sites organized by school districts and community organizations.