When the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the closing of public schools in March 2020, there was an immediate and robust community response to make sure that children who received their meals at school would still have enough to eat. As uplifting as the stories about volunteers and restaurants providing these food resources are, they also shone a bright light on the reality of childhood food insecurity in West Virginia and the vital role of school feeding programs.
As West Virginians know well, food insecurity predated the pandemic and will likely persist once the pandemic subsides unless temporary provisions are made permanent and additional supports are enacted. The American Families Plan recognizes the importance of these temporary programs and ensures that West Virginia children don’t go hungry, even as pandemic support ends. Research shows that school lunch programs have broad benefits for students including improved obesity and health rates, better overall nutrition, and a more positive learning environment.
West Virginia leads the country in providing free and reduced school breakfasts and lunches. More than 120,000 children across the state currently participate in these programs. In addition to providing the nutrition children need to succeed throughout the day, the programs also help families stretch their budgets. These federally subsidized free and reduced meals save West Virginia families over $120 million a year.
The American Families Plan would increase the amount of children who could participate in the programs by expanding the Community Eligibility Provision. This provision allows schools that serve a significant percentage of low-income families to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students regardless of household income. Schools that utilize this provision often see an increase in meal participation and a reduction in administrative costs since they don’t have to collect and process individual applications. This provision also likely reduces the stigma surrounding food insecurity, as all students receive the free meals without needing to opt into the program.
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is currently available to schools where at least 40 percent of students participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under the American Families Plan, the threshold would be lowered to 25 percent of students for elementary and middle schools, which would allow an additional 32 West Virginia schools to provide no cost breakfasts and lunches to all of their students. The plan also provides direct certification to automatically enroll more eligible students when not attending a CEP qualifying school. These provisions will result in an additional 51,000 students statewide gaining access to free and reduced meals.
As mentioned above, an additional benefit of the free and reduced lunch program is that it frees up a family’s funds for other expenses during the school year. However, this can create an additional expense during the summer when children aren’t receiving those free meals at school. The American Rescue Plan accounted for this additional cost by extending Pandemic-EBT through the summer of 2021. This provides parents currently receiving free or reduced meals with $375 per child (55 days at $6.82 per day), or the equivalent of their free and reduced meal budget for the same timeframe to offset food insecurity.
Summer brings a whole host of additional costs for families, but more money for food doesn’t have to be one of them. Research shows that Pandemic-EBT reduced food insecurity among families with children by 30 percent upon disbursement. Additionally, this funding provides much-needed revenue to local retailers and grocers, supports the staff that work at these establishments, and ripples out through the local economy. The American Families Plan would make the successful Summer EBT program permanent and expand it to all eligible children nationwide.
The American Families Plan would also increase the quality of food being offered in school feeding programs. With around a quarter million West Virginia residents living in a food desert without reliable access to fresh fruits, vegetables, or healthy whole foods, it comes as no surprise that the meals children eat at school often account for the healthiest parts of their diet. The American Families Plan would expand on this progress by launching a healthy foods incentive demonstration. This would encourage schools to adopt measures that exceed current school meal health standards by offering enhanced reimbursements to those that do.
In the most recent Census Pulse Data, over 60,000 West Virginia households with children reported experiencing difficulty getting enough food to eat. The American Families Plan would provide critical support that endorses what we already know: no child should ever go hungry. The American Families Plan will help West Virginia families fight hunger year-round and give our children a healthy start to a prosperous life, which we know has health and economic benefits that far outweigh their investment.
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