Proposed Bill Would Help Schools Pay For Student Meals
By Amie Knowles
September 23, 2020

RICHMOND-Sometimes it can be harder to get schools to opt in than to opt out. That was the lesson outlined Tuesday in the Virginia Senate’s Education and Health Committee. As Del. Danica Roem presented HB5113 to the group, she explained that more than 100 districts in the state had not opted in to the program.

The bill transforms school participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) into an opt-out process instead of an opt-in process for eligible schools in the commonwealth.

Roem explained that Virginia under-uses CEP. Many schools that meet the eligibility requirements for the program aren’t taking advantage of federal funds. That money provides free breakfast and lunch to students in lower income areas.

“Out of all of the public schools that are currently eligible, approximately 180 schools are not yet participating in CEP,” Roem said.

A total of 425 schools in Virginia are eligible for federal help to pay for free and reduced meals, but don’t participate, according to the state’s Dept. of Planning and Budget. An additional 294 schools are near eligible, meaning they would get a lower amount of funding, but also don’t participate.

Questions answered

Before the bill reached a vote, committee chairwoman Sen. L. Louise Lucas opened the floor for questions and several representatives inquired.

Sen. Janet D. Howell spoke first, commending Roem for bringing the bill forward.

“I find it appalling that some local governments aren’t using money to stream food to our hungry children. And I’m embarrassed that one of my own is included in that,” Howell said. “So I appreciate her efforts.”

Following discussion between Roem and Sen. Mamie E. Locke about specific language used in the bill matching USDA and federal terminology, Roem responded to a question from Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, noting in part that the bill could alleviate the administrative burden that comes with tracking down individuals who are eligible for free and reduced meals.

“And at the same time, this is going to keep so many parents out of school meal debt, where in Prince William County alone, we’ve had more than $300,000 in a single year,” Roem said. “This is designed to make sure that we are eliminating as much of that as possible.”

Sen. George L. Barker commented next, conveying a personal story involving his grandson.

“My grandson was thrilled when he found out he was going to be able to eat breakfast with the rest of his classmates. [The boy] was one of the few who didn’t get a free breakfast in the classroom when they went to this program,” Barker said. “He says now he has a choice; he can eat breakfast at home or at school.”

Reimbursement rates

The committee also discussed the two reimbursement rates outlined in the bill – free and paid – when Sen. Stephen D. Newman inquired about a locality’s choice to opt-in or out of the program.

The federal government will reimburse schools that have 62.5% or more of students who qualify for free meals. Schools between 55% and 62.4% of enrolled students fall into a reimbursement range of 80% to 99%. Multiplying a school’s ISP by 1.6 determines the percentage of meals reimbursed. Remaining meals get reimbursed at the paid rate.

Roem further noted that the school board or division superintendent could notify the Virginia Department of Education of their decision.

As the discussion concluded, HB5113 received a motion, a second and passed unanimously by the live-streaming quorum.

Local schools praise changes

Shelia Williams, director of early education for Martinsville City Schools, said that the bill wouldn’t have a large impact on the local district. The reason is that Martinsville has been part of CEP for approximately eight years.

“Initially when we started, only our elementary schools and preschools were receiving it. Then, I want to say within the next year or so, we moved toward getting all five of our schools participating,” Williams said. “Since that time, all of our students have continued to participate in the CEP program, which makes them eligible to receive free breakfast and free lunch.”

Reduced lunches didn’t end struggle

Before the program allowed all students free meals, some families paid full-price and others paid a percentage of the total. Some families teetered the line for assistance, which proved financially difficult. The CEP program took away that strain.

“Then that whole reduced piece, they were kind of caught in the middle. The income they made was a little too high to receive free, and it was sometimes just right there, right on the border of being approved for free. So it just took all of that out of the equation,” Williams said. “And also, it helps with not identifying students. You know, now everybody gets a free meal. There’s no identification. There’s no overt identification when you accidentally do it, none of that, ‘Oh, you owe this on your lunch account’ or anything. No, we don’t have that anymore.”

Since the program’s local inception, Williams noted a change in the number of students partaking of meals at school.

“It has been a tremendous benefit to our program because it allows that equal access to the free meals to all of our students. [The program] doesn’t put that hardship of trying to pay on any of our families,” Williams said. “It has been a great benefit. Our meal participation has increased tremendously since we went all-CEP.”

Williams looked forward to other communities benefiting from CEP.

“I’m just really excited about the opportunity that even more school divisions are getting on board with this, especially right now with the economic strain that so many families are enduring at this time,” Williams said. “It’s really, really helpful, and the families are so appreciative of it.”

County schools also benefit

Monica Hatchett, director of communications and organizational learning for Henry County Public Schools, noted that all schools in the division benefit from CEP.

“CEP has helped to support families in Henry County in wonderful ways over the last several years, providing balanced, free, nutritious breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of their family’s financial status,” Hatchett said. “This universal support has helped to remove barriers that may have previously existed for students and has supported much higher distribution of meals than our school had prior to its implementation.”

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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