School Meals Provide a Guarantee That Children Will Get FedLeave a Comment
Young people can learn and thrive when they are fed and have access to healthy and nutritious foods. However, in Virginia, one in ten children are considered food insecure and may face hunger. Children are considered food insecure when their households experience limited or uncertain availability of safe, nutritious food at some point during the year.
While significant efforts to improve food security have been in place during the pandemic—such as the enhanced Child Tax Credit, expanded SNAP benefits, Pandemic EBT, and universal school meals—unfortunately, these programs were designed to be temporary. Many of the supports that helped feed young people and lift their families out of poverty have already come to an end or will end once the Federal Public Health Emergency expires.
The pandemic demonstrated that when it comes to ensuring young people have access to nutritious, healthy, and culturally appropriate food, there are programs that work. And one thing we are certain of is that school meals play a crucial role in providing the nutrition children need to support their academic success and overall well-being.
This school year, Congress did not extend the federal waiver authority that allowed all young people access to free school meals over the last two years. As a result, schools have gone back to pre-pandemic operations, requiring families to submit an application to their child’s school to determine if their child is eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Voices is grateful to Virginia legislators who included $8.2 million in state funds over the next two years to cover the out-of-pocket costs of Virginia’s young people who qualified for reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches. The state funding will allow roughly 64,500 children from households whose incomes are between 130-149% of the poverty level to get their school meals for free rather than at reduced-price. But that still does not remove the barriers to food access created by the requirement to fill out paperwork for students to receive those meals at no cost to their families.
A program that does remove barriers is the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Through CEP participation, school divisions are able to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge and without processing school meal applications.
How Can Schools Participate and Why Should They?
A school district, group of schools in a district, or individual school with 40% or more “identified students” can choose to participate in the CEP on a four-year cycle. Identified students are young people who are eligible for free school meals and are already identified by means other than a school meals application, such as:
- students whose households participate in SNAP, TANF, and in some states (including Virginia), Medicaid benefits,
- as well as students who are certified for free school meals because they are identified as homeless, migrant, runaway, enrolled in head start, or are in foster care.
The Community Eligibility Provision promotes equity, reduces stigma, and saves schools significant time by reducing administrative burdens. Some of the benefits of CEP include:
Helping economically disadvantaged students and their families
- Parents are assured that students are getting two healthy meals a day at school
- Families’ financial burden is eased when students eat school meals
- Offering meals at no charge to all students eliminates stigma and “school lunch shaming”
Increasing efficiency and school meal participation
- Families don’t encounter language and literacy barriers to access through the application process
- Schools do not need to track each meal served by fee category (free, reduced-price, and paid)
- School nutrition staff do not need to collect fees or lunch numbers from students, allowing the lunch line to move faster and ensuring more students can be served
- Eliminates unpaid school meal debt
Virginia’s Utilization of CEP
Virginia has made significant progress to encourage school divisions to reduce barriers to offering free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision. During the 2021-2022 school year, out of Virginia’s 145 school districts, 97 divisions (67%) were eligible to participate in CEP and 81 of those divisions participated division-wide. According to the Food Research & Action Center, Virginia had the largest growth in the number of school districts adopting CEP, increasing by 25 school districts.
Despite these numbers, there are roughly 50 school divisions that have no CEP opportunities or CEP opportunities are only available at a limited number of schools.
As inflation has hit a 40-year high, families across Virginia—especially those in areas with a high cost of living—are struggling to make ends meet. And as a result, families who do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals are more likely to now experience food insecurity.
Virginia can work to ensure that less children experience food insecurity by expanding SNAP benefits and working to reduce the SNAP participation gap amongst families, supporting school divisions in an effort to maximize opportunities for adopting CEP, and continuing to fund and maintain the elimination of the reduced-price meal category for school meals.
Voices for Virginia’s Children is a member of the Virginia Food Access Coalition, a statewide coalition that develops policy solutions to increase economic access to healthy and nutritious foods by investing in retail infrastructures and programmatic initiatives to combat areas of food insecurity.