Prince William County Schools has announced that universally free school meals division-wide are over after two years, but that more than a third of the division’s 96 schools will continue to provide free meals to all students in the coming school year.
As previously reported by InsideNoVa, a federal waiver providing for the free meals to all students at all schools expired in June after Congress failed to extend the program or make it permanent.
But late last week the school division announced that 37 schools will qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which “allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications,” according to the USDA website. Schools are then reimbursed based on the percentage of students who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
What that means for the school system is that three of its 14 high schools, five of 17 middle schools, 27 of 62 elementary schools and the two non-traditional schools will be able to serve free meals to all students regardless of family income. At the remaining schools, students who previously would have only qualified for reduced-rate meals (as opposed to free) will still be able to get all meals free, but students who qualify for neither free nor reduced prices will have to pay once again, possibly costing those families as much as $1,000 over the course of the school year.
USDA is also cutting the standard amount it will reimburse school systems across the country after another waiver from Congress lapsed, even as food prices have continued to rise. In June, as the federal waiver was set to expire, the school system’s Food Services Director Adam Russo said the more students that can eat for free, the better. When all meals aren’t free, some students face stigma for getting them free, he said, and a record number of students were taking school meals at all last year.
“We’re really proud of the food that we serve. We try to serve really nutritious and yummy food that our kids really like,” Russo told InsideNoVa. “And what you find is, the more students that take meals … We’re not asking parents for their tax returns for their kids to get a ride on the school bus … If meals are free for all, more students will eat.”
Earlier this summer, Manassas City Public Schools announced that meals will continue to be free for all of the division’s roughly 8,000 students.