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Virginia lawmakers eyeing bill that could provide free meals to students

Virginia lawmakers are considering a bill that could provide free school meals to all public school children―not just the ones that meet the income requirements.

Sen. Danica Roem, representing Manassas City, Manassas Park City and part of Prince William County, introduced the bill in Virginia’s General Assembly.

[RELATED: Legislation could pave the way for free school meals for all Virginia students]

Currently, public schools enrolled in the Community Eligibility Provision, also known as CEP, receive free breakfast and lunch. Schools only qualify for CEP if a certain percentage of its students qualify as low-income. However, Roem’s bill wouldn’t consider income as a determinant for free school meals.

Schools that do not meet the income threshold, include the counties of Roanoke, Montgomery, Bedford and Botetourt. Some of Salem City schools are currently enrolled.

Sen. Roem said this bill would help families save money if it’s passed.

“The governor has proposed revamping our taxes and everything. If you want targeted relief for families, then go and make school meals universally free because then parents get to save up to $1,000 per student per school year. That is a very targeted approach to making sure that families are taken care of right now,” said Roem.

Roem is proposing more than $150 million in state funding would go toward making breakfast and lunch free. The Department of Agriculture will reimburse each public school for each meal.

However, not everyone agrees with the bill. Sen. Mark Peake, who represents Lynchburg, Bedford and Campbell Counties, said it would help all of Virginia, including some wealthy counties in Northern Virginia.

“The median income in those four counties goes anywhere from $146,000 to $170,000. In my district, it’s about $60,000 in Lynchburg [and] $69,000 in surrounding areas—so, in the $50,000 to $60,000 median income,” said Peake.

The bill is currently in the General Assembly’s Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

He also said that he thinks the proposed money for free meals would be better suited for something else.

“Out of $170 million, we could hire 2,000 some odd teachers at $75,000 a year to go into our neediest communities,” said Peake.

However, Roem said this will hurt the school divisions Peak represents.

“I would tell Senator Peake to go to his constituents in Bedford and ask them why it is that the rest of the students in Bedford who are not currently enrolled in CEP should not benefit the same way that the students who are enrolled in CEP are. Why is it that Bedford County students will be left behind because of the senator’s actions by opposing this?” said Roem.

Meantime, Botetourt County Schools sent an email and said the proposed legislation would help its students.

“Students continue to bear the brunt of the negative effects of the current USDA program for benefit qualification. Access to nutrition is vital to childhood development and should not be a barrier to any school-aged student. Legislation that could potentially provide these meals at no cost for all students directly supports academic achievement while alleviating financial burdens on families and is a direct investment in the communities and future of the Commonwealth,” said Communications Specialist Mike Moser with Botetourt County.

Director of School Nutrition Connie Wood with Radford City Schools, which currently benefits from CEP, sent an email supporting the bill as well.

“I am optimistic about the passage of Bill SB 283, which would ensure that all students in the State of Virginia can access free breakfast and lunch without any cost. Throughout my 32-year career in school nutrition, I have held onto the hope that Virginia would adopt universal feeding for all students,” said Wood in an email.

Source: WSLS News 10

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