When Gov. Ralph Northam released his biennial budget last month, he was rightly applauded by family and child advocates throughout the commonwealth. He proposes much-needed investments in affordable housing, child care, maternal health and education. Specifically, he adds $1.2 billion in K-12 funding, including $140 million in new money for the state’s “at-risk add-on” for low-income school districts.
Given the health of the commonwealth’s coffers following my husband’s term as governor, these are the right policies at the right time. Strengthening schools and resources for low-income families are down payments on a brighter future for Virginia.
Smartly, Northam chose to insure his investments in education by expanding access to child nutrition programs.
The governor’s budget provides $5.3 million per year in state funding to make school meals free for all children who live in households at or below 185% poverty ($47,638 annual income for a family of four). Removing the cost barrier for students who currently pay for reduced price meals will expand program participation, ensure access to nutrition and remove one more worry for families who struggle to make ends meet.
Eliminating the reduced price category will advance the successes we have seen since I prioritized school meal access as first lady. In Virginia, there are now 60,000 more students starting their day strong with school breakfast and 416 more schools providing meals at no cost to all students compared to 2014.
These successes are notable not just because addressing child hunger is the morally right thing to do, but because school meal access is essential to improving educational outcomes and driving long-term economic opportunity. Economists have concluded that improving school meal quality is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve student performance, while multiple studies found school meals have greater nutritional quality than pre-packed lunches from home. Students learn better when they eat better, and students eat better when eating school meals.
Additionally, a recent study out this month shows that modernizing the way school breakfast is served — making it a part of the school day — not only increases participation but also can significantly reduce chronic absenteeism rates by an average of six percentage points. This further underscores the fact that making sure our kids get the consistent nutrition they need is firmly intertwined with educational success.
Expanding access to free meals will also start to chip away at a problem plaguing too many of our localities — school meal debt. The Virginia Poverty Law Center estimates families have accrued a total of $1.8 million in unpaid meal debt across the commonwealth. No child should have to miss a meal at a school because of his or her family’s ability to pay, and no school nutrition department should have to shoulder that debt when they are doing so much good work with so few resources as it is.
The issue of school meal debt came to the forefront this past fall in Franklin County after a high school student was denied a lunch due to his unpaid balance. A group of concerned citizens advocated to the school board for solutions, and one parent, Sherry Scott, summed up the value of investing in school meals best: “They can have the best technology. They can hire the best teachers in the state of Virginia, but as long as a child is sitting in class hungry, none of that matters.”
And if good nutrition matters when kids are in school, it matters when they are out of school. Educational gains are put at risk when students who depend on school meals lose access to them during the summer.
For that reason, I also want to commend the governor for investing in Summer EBT (a per-child monthly benefit that can be spent on food items at the grocery store), as well as our food banks’ critical out-of-school nutrition programs, such as Weekend Backpacks, School-based Pantries, and Summer and Afterschool Meals. Working in tandem, these programs will significantly strengthen the nutritional safety net that currently fails too many of our children outside the classroom.
By investing in our child nutrition programs, Northam’s budget recognizes that school meals are a critical tool in the education toolbox, the same as teachers, books, computers or buses — things we would never hold back from students based on their ability to pay. We know it intuitively, but the numbers back it up — kids can’t be hungry for knowledge if they are just plain hungry.