Bunches of lunches

Newport News Public Schools becomes the largest school district in Virginia to give free lunches to students 

Stories about children not being allowed to advance into the next grade due to school lunch debt are continually breaking around the country. However, the Newport News Public School (NNPS) system recently received approval from the Virginia Department of Education to make school breakfasts and lunches free for all students. 

This progressive step means efficient support to the high propensity of students coming from low-income families. NNPS will be the first division in Hampton Roads to make school meals free, as well as being the largest school division in the state to take this step. 

Newport News has been gradually making advances toward free meals for students by using funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program. Newport News began adopting this program in 2015, although it was rolled out in 2014. 

As of last year, there were only six remaining schools in the district charging students for meals. One challenge remained: the Department of Agriculture’s program only applied to children in elementary schools. 

Through the Community Eligibility Provision, a key part of the program, not all students qualified for benefits as they would need to qualify for other public benefits. These students would be coming from low-income communities. However, families receiving CEP benefits would no longer be eligible for the benefits after their children left elementary school. 

Thankfully, the program has been finalized to apply to the entire district regardless of the level of schooling. 

This transition to making school meals free has been advancing for years in Newport News. Now, it is up to the rest of the state to look to NNPS as a pilot program for what free meals would look like for students. 

School districts nationwide are also on similar tracks toward adopting free school meals. However, the qualifications for CEP benefits continue to challenge school districts in their adoption efforts of the program. 

Regarding CEP’s adoption, the rates across Hampton Roads are something to be interested in. 47 percent of students  in NNPS meet the criteria for benefits. In contrast, Norfolk and Portsmouth school districts have rates of 49 percent and 51 percent, respectively. NNPS is and will be leading the way in Hampton Roads in terms of being a pilot program. 

CNU alumnus and local NNPS 3rd grade teacher, Will Geise, said, “BC Charles already had free lunch for all students before this year, as did many schools in the district… It’s exciting to see it happen district-wide. It means that no matter what, our students are getting at least one guaranteed meal a day or more.” 

This program will begin to end the stigma of free meals only given to lower-income students. Students of all backgrounds can now enjoy the safety net of having a meal provided at school. 

Studies have also shown that hunger affects students’ behavior negatively, often contributing to students acting out and doing poorly on standardized tests.

~Josh Scrabeck, Staff Writer~

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