Post-pandemic, free school meals continue in some districts

Nov 22, 2021

Laurie Curry is the food service coordinator for Winchester public schools.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

The pandemic prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide universal free lunches to all K through 12 students through next spring. But some local school divisions were already providing free meals -- and will continue to do so post-pandemic -- under another federal program. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[Sound of students going through lunch line]

At Handley High School in Winchester last Friday, around 1,300 students filed through the cafeteria during one of three lunch periods, picking out chicken nuggets and vegetables, pizza, salads, and cartons of milk. The cafeteria holds a mix of traditional lunch tables, high-top banquet tables, and booth seating -- all filled with kids chatting and eating, or scrolling, many sporting t-shirts advertising 'High School Musical on Stage!'

Laurie Curry, the food service coordinator for the division, gave me a tour.

[Machinery sounds]

LAURIE CURRY: This is the bulk of it - you've got your hot side, and then your cold side basically with your salads here, sandwiches down there. She does all of our hot prep. Lori's one of our main cooks -- hi Lori!

LORRIE FAUVER: Hey, how are you?

CURRY: Good! We've got our main equipment line. We've got a warmer, and a refrigerator there …

Winchester City Public Schools is one of a handful of divisions in our area that offers free breakfasts and lunches for all of its students through the USDA's Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP-- a federal program that helps fund meals for individual schools and entire districts where at least 40% of the student body comes from low-income homes.

LAURIE CURRY: We are predominantly in that poverty level because we're inner city, and the superintendent, Jason Van Heukelum, he had said maybe we needed to look more into it and I did.

Curry first entered their elementary schools into the program. When it came time to reapply after four years, she enrolled the whole division. She said about 53% of their students already qualified for free lunches or their families receive benefits like SNAP, which counts towards that 40% threshold.

Prior to becoming a CEP division, Curry said that some students who could really use a free breakfast and lunch were falling through the cracks because their families weren't turning in the required paperwork. CEP eliminates those applications.

CURRY: Some of it was pride. Some of it has to do with, we're a very high Hispanic population, and I feel a lot of them maybe that may be immigrants … they don't want their names on paper, or they don't want any type of government form to have their identification on it, so they would not fill it out, and they would be, a lot of those families, that would be ones that need it.

While the meals are now free, they have temporarily had to limit the number of choices they offer each day due to pandemic-related short-staffing and supply shortages.

CURRY: Today is gonna be chicken tenders or popcorn chicken or chicken nuggets. We get a lot of government chicken … I do the menus, but that doesn't always mean we can necessarily get the products. And again, a lot of stuff like paper, I'm having to deal with other vendors because I can't always get it from my main vendor.

Buena Vista City Public Schools are also a division-wide CEP participant.

PAM CONLEY: I think that it's more beneficial for the students, you know, that weren't actually free already. And it took a lot of peer pressure away as well.

Pam Conley is the co-nutrition director.

CONLEY: I think more students do participate now that everyone is on equal ground … Children like to do whatever their peers are doing, so if there's children eating lunch, then, you know, everybody else is more likely to do that. But if you have a friend that's packing every day, then your friends are also going to want to pack. You see a lot of peer pressure like that with children.

Conley also saw students' families -- she estimates maybe about 20% of those with kids in Buena Vista schools -- who did not quite qualify for free lunches, but were still food-insecure.

CONLEY: Yes, we've had many families thank us, and it has been very helpful and beneficial to them.

According to a Virginia Department of Education report from April, other local districts that have enrolled all their schools in CEP include Bath and Nelson counties and the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Waynesboro.