More than 300 schools could provide free meals for all with help from a federal program

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More than 300 schools in the state that are eligible for federal reimbursement if they provide free breakfast and lunch to all students didn’t use the program this school year, according to an analysis by The Commonwealth Institute.

The Richmond-based, liberal-leaning think tank reported that this past school year was the first time since 2014 that more than half of all eligible schools participated in the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that reimburses schools and school systems with certain percentages of high-poverty students for providing free breakfast and lunch.

Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane spelled out the requirements in a memo earlier this month.

To be eligible, a school district, one or more schools, or groups of schools in the division must participate in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program; must have 40 percent or more students eligible for free meals through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance or other programs; agree to provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students; and cover any cost beyond the federal reimbursement rate.

This past school year, 420 Virginia schools participated, benefiting about 200,000 students. That amounts to 58 percent of eligible schools, up from 48 percent the year before.

But there are still more than 300 schools in the state eligible for the program that did not participate, affecting 150,000 students, the institute said.

“The rate of food insecurity among children presents a threat to the health and well-being of thousands of children within Virginia,” the institute wrote. “It’s vital that eligible schools participate in CEP to help make sure children facing hunger have access to regular, nutritious meals in their schools.”

Participation in the program “reduces the level of stigma faced by students who receive free or reduced-price lunch,” The Commonwealth Institute wrote in its analysis.

“Adopting CEP eliminates this distinction between students participating in FRPL and those who are not.”

It also makes things easier for school administrators, who no longer have to keep records ensuring that only students eligible for free and reduced lunch use the program, the institute noted.