Like every other student’s family that year, my family had received a form to receive free meals at our elementary school. My mom explained that we had qualified for free meals, but that other kids would know I was getting those free lunches; she made it sound shameful. When it was left to me to decide if I wanted free school meals, I decided against it.
That was more than twenty-five years ago. The landscape today in Virginia is drastically different. Rather than individual students being singled out for free school meals, many schools offer all students free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Through CEP, school districts in which at least 40 percent of students meet the criteria for free school meals are given financial support to provide free school meals for all students in the district. The rate of qualifying students for a district is assessed by looking at the number of identified students, which includes students whose households participate in Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); students who are in foster care or enrolled in Head Start; or students whose families are homeless or migrants. As a result, from the latest published data, around 45 percent of Virginia children are enrolled in a school that participates in CEP.
How Medicaid Affects School Meals for Students
Due to changes in Medicaid, the number of identified students is predicted to decline. During the last three years, the number of children participating in Medicaid has reached an all-time high in Virginia. This is because during the public health emergency, individuals could not be disenrolled in Medicaid unless they met a limited number of exceptions. With those protections now removed, many children will be disenrolled from Medicaid. This change in policy will reduce the number of identified students and the number of schools meeting CEP eligibility.
Individual qualifying students, including eligible identified students and other students who meet various criteria, may still receive free school meals without having to complete an application. However, the direct certification of students in Medicaid households will decline over the next year.
Children who are not directly certified will need to complete a free or reduced meal form. Around an additional 10 percent of all Virginia students receive free and reduced meals due to direct certification or by submitting a paper application.
The Impact of Free School Meals
School meals are critically important to student well-being. Studies have shown that free and reduced-fee school meals lower food insecurity and help improve children’s health and their educational outcomes.
To be financially eligible for free or reduced-fee school meals, a child’s household income must be below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). It’s important to note that during the 2022-2023 school year, Virginia began waiving the reduced fee for meals and will continue to waive them during the next school year. This means children who are eligible for reduced-fee meals will receive free meals. While individual qualification for free meals is possible, the criteria for qualifying are imperfect. For example, the income criteria are the same regardless of the cost of living in a family’s market (think Northern Virginia versus Southwest Virginia). Moreover, the income criteria are quite low. A family of four must have a gross annual income of less than $55,500 to qualify for free school meals. In contrast, by providing free school meals to all, CEP districts make up for the inadequacies in current individual qualification criteria.
With fewer school districts qualifying for CEP, the number of kids who fall through the gaps of individual qualification will increase.
Can the School Meal Program Be Revamped?
What can be done? One way to make sure students are able to get the meals they need is to adopt a program of universal school meals. During the 2021-2022 school year, the federal government provided free school meals to all students. This assistance has ended. However, since then six states have passed universal school meals for all students and others have temporarily funded universal school meal programs.
In the General Assembly last year, a bill that would have provided free school meals for all Virginia students in public schools was defeated. This bill had a corresponding budget amendment of $270 million dollars that was not passed in the General Assembly. Considering the reimbursement from the federal government, the cost of the program for Virginia would be much lower.
Another way Virginia can expand free school meals is to increase the family income limit for children to receive free school meals. For example, if the income limit increases to 300 percent of FPL, the annual income limit would increase to around $90,000 a year for a household of four. This price tag would be significantly lower than providing school meals for all children. It would also provide more equitable outcomes throughout the state related to cost of living regardless of where a child lives. Unlike a program of universal school meals, families would still need to complete a paper application to be eligible for free meals, which could be a barrier for some students.
Advocating for Children
In the coming years, we may see more children losing their free and reduced-fee school meals. To prepare for these scenarios, you can contact your state representatives and let them know you support increased funding for school meals and policy changes to allow more students access to free meals.
You can find your representative at whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov.