Proposed Law Seeks to Provide Free School Meals to all Virginia Students

A proposal that was passed by the Senate Education and Health Committee in Virginia would ensure that all public school students in the state receive free meals. The bill, Senate Bill 283, was introduced by Sen. Danica Roem, a Democrat from Manassas. She emphasized the importance of providing meals to every child without any questions or limitations. The estimated cost of the proposal over the next two years is $346 million according to the budget amendment.

While the proposal received support, some Republicans, including Sen. Mark Peake from Lynchburg, expressed concerns about the cost. Peake highlighted that wealthy counties should not rely on general fund dollars to provide meals for their students. However, Roem pointed out that even wealthier counties still have schools that qualify for federal school lunch programs and have substantial school meal debt. Additionally, many families just miss the eligibility limit for free or reduced-price meals.

The School Nutrition Association of Virginia, represented by lobbyist Catherine Ford, argued that meals should be treated as essential as textbooks, school buses, and desks. Ford stressed the necessity of allocating funds for universal meals in schools.

The Proposal

If the proposal is approved, all public school divisions in Virginia will be required to offer free meals to students, unless their parents specifically request otherwise. Schools will be reimbursed by the state for each meal provided. Currently, only schools that meet the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can offer free meals to all students. The CEP requires a certain percentage of students to be classified as low-income. However, Roem’s measure would extend free meals to schools that do not qualify for the CEP.

In addition to providing free meals, the legislation would mandate school boards to adopt policies that maximize the use of federal funds for breakfast and lunch programs. It would also establish a workgroup to study the potential impact of offering guaranteed school meals.

Building on Previous Legislation

Roem emphasized that this year’s proposal is an extension of a 2020 bill she successfully carried, which required divisions to apply for the CEP if their schools qualified for it. The cost of school breakfasts in Virginia amounts to approximately $34 million per year, while lunches cost around $138 million. During a hearing, Roem provided an example of the positive impact of the previous legislation, pointing out that 44 schools in Prince William County had no school meal debt after enrolling in the CEP, while more than 50 schools had over $291,256 in debt in the previous semester.

Roem stressed that not every student in CEP schools relies on free meals due to financial need, but many students experience financial insecurity and benefit from the program. She highlighted that addressing meal debt is essential, as it affects funds that could be allocated to other areas, such as classrooms or computer labs. Roem’s goal is to take care of all students in schools, especially when the federal government does not fully fund universal free school meals for everyone.

Addressing Food Insecurity in Higher Education

In addition to the proposal for free meals in public schools, Roem is also carrying Senate Bill 318, which aims to address food insecurity among students at public colleges or universities in Virginia. The bill intends to establish a grant program to support these students. By addressing food insecurity, Roem believes that students will be able to afford tuition and housing, allowing them to stay in school and graduate on time. Senate Bill 318 is also set to be reviewed by the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

Source: Virginia Mercury

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