Cafeteria worker, Estell Swain, center, loads food packs along with school nurse, Mary Hovermale, left, as cafeteria manager David Anderson, right, distributes meals to students at Fairfield Middle School Wednesday March 18 , 2020, in Richmond due to caronavirus. Henrico county public school system is distributing lunches for low income students. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Estell Swain, Mary Hovermale, David Hoverdale
Cafeteria worker, Estell Swain, center, loads food packs along with school nurse, Mary Hovermale, left, as cafeteria manager David Anderson, right, distributes meals to students at Fairfield Middle School Wednesday March 18 , 2020, in Richmond due to caronavirus. Henrico county public school system is distributing lunches for low income students. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia schools serve more than 122.5 million lunches a year.

HENRICO—When Virginia schools switched to virtual learning during the spring 2020 semester, a major concern arose. What would happen if students didn’t get a meal from school?

On the surface, the issue might’ve seemed minor to some. Besides, it’s just one meal, right? Wrong. 

According to the Virginia Department of Education, commonwealth students consume 681,505 lunches, 196,987 breakfasts, and 7,240 after school snacks each day. Over a school year, that breaks down to more than 122.5 million lunches, 35 million breakfasts, and 1.3 million snacks.

Additionally, more than 460,000 of Virginia’s 1.2 million students were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals prior to the pandemic. In the commonwealth, that meant families below 130% of the poverty level met the requirements for free meals and those between 130% and 185% of the poverty level were eligible for reduced-price meals at no more than 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.

“We know that good quality food is so important to our kids for so many reasons. It helps them focus in the classroom. I know that when I’m hungry, I have trouble concentrating and so to think of a child who is taking a spelling or a math test on an empty belly, we know that they’re not going to be performing at their best. And it’s not just in the classroom—we want them to have success on the court or on the playground and at home,” said Sarah Steely, director of No Kid Hungry Virginia. “We just want every Virginia kid to live and learn and grow and thrive, and quality nutrition is such an important piece of that.”

The Push To Extend Universal Free Student Meals

During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offered universal free lunch for all students. However, 12 current waivers and the USDA’s waiver authority are set to expire in June.

“These waivers do things like allow schools to serve meals out of the traditionally required group settings, so expanding where meals can be served, the times meals can be served,” Steely said. “It gives folks some flexibility from penalties that they would otherwise be incurring because of the strained supply chain challenges, and it allows us to serve meals to all kids at no cost.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger—a Democrat who serves the newly redrawn 7th district from Caroline County north to Dale County—aims to extend the child nutrition waiver into 2023. She introduced bipartisan legislation through the Keeping School Meals Flexible Act, which would give schools in Virginia and across the country increased flexibility to continue serving meals to students safely and efficiently.

“There’s just so many reasons these waivers are so important for our school nutrition teams, and extending them will give them that stability and peace of mind to plan with confidence for the summer and for next school year,” Steely said. 

Getting Involved

If you’re interested in extending free meals for Virginia students, now’s the time to act. 

“Over the next few weeks, we really want to put pressure on Congress to ensure that they are giving the USDA the authority to extend these waivers. The USDA administers these programs at the national level, but they—right now—don’t have the power to say, ‘Yes, go ahead and extend the waivers through next summer or next school year,’” Steely said. “Congress needs to give them the go-ahead to do that.”

One way to get involved is to contact local and state lawmakers. The Virginia General Assembly provides an online tool to easily locate contact information for representatives by simply providing your home address. 

“So really now is the time to contact your lawmaker and say, ‘Hey, this is really important for kids in my community,’” Steely said.