At Herndon Middle School, a teacher has taken the issue of student meal debt in his own hands.
Science and special education teacher Gabe Segal has worked with other staff and nonprofit organizations to pay off more than $1,000 in student meal debts at the school.
“I’ve always prided myself on building relationships with students, staff and families in the community,” Segal wrote in a statement to FFXnow. “As I’ve gotten to know the students and community, I realized the impact the pandemic and inflation has had on them. Although 1/3 of students qualify for free meals, some families have fallen through the cracks.”
His goal is to pay off lunch debt at the school and start a larger effort to establish free, universal meals in the county and, eventually, the state.
Meal debt stands at $708,140 across Fairfax County Public Schools, as of mid-January.
According to FCPS data, end-of-year balances hovered around $101,000 in the 2021-2022 academic year, $153,000 in 2020-2021, $212,000 in 2019-2020 and $214,000 in 2018-2019.
As of October 2021, roughly 31% of students in FCPS qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The costs of breakfast and lunch are determined by the school board, while the cost of reduced-price meals are established by the federal government.
For elementary school students, breakfast currently costs $1.75, and a lunch costs $3.25.
Families with an income of less than 130% of the poverty level quality for free meals, while those with incomes between 130 and 185% of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price meals.
Under a state law amended last year, school employees are prohibited from requiring students who aren’t able to pay for a meal or who have meal debt to throw away meals after they are served.
Additionally, meal debt can’t be used to bar students from participating in extracurricular school activities. School systems can receive donations or other funds to eliminate or offset meal debt.
FCPS did not immediately indicate how it handles meal debt upon graduation. A spokesperson for the school system did not respond to a request for comment on what accounts for the current rise in meal debt.
For the first two years of the pandemic, all students were able to get meals for free under waivers funded by federal relief money, resulting in a major uptick in cafeteria food distribution.
That allowance ended on July 1, 2022, but FCPS is still offering free meals to students at 34 schools this year through a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Herndon Middle School is not one of the schools included in that program.
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