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Some families confused by change to free and reduced lunch program

Pandemic-era waivers provided free meals to all students in schools across the country. Then it ended. Now school lunch debt is on the rise again nationwide.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — School officials in Alexandria are working to educate families about the federal Free and Reduced Meal (FARM) program. During the pandemic, school lunch was free for all students in the country, regardless of income because of pandemic-era waivers. 

When the waivers expired in 2022, putting an end to the universal free meals, families had to reapply in order to qualify for assistance again. This is the second school year where families have had to apply for FARM. Since then, school districts, including Alexandria have had to manage confusion from parents who didn't have to pay for lunch during the pandemic. 

"Nutrition is the crux of everything we do," said Dr. Eric Coleman, Director of Nutrition Services for Alexandria City Public Schools. 

Coleman says nutrition plays a crucial role in students' education. 

"When they come to school they can show up ready, willing, able, full bellies in the classroom and they will have everything they need to perform academically," said Coleman. 

The payment model for schools reverted back to what it was before the pandemic, with eligibility based on income. Nationwide, that has led to a return of school lunch debt. Last year schools saw $19 million in unpaid meal debt, according to a recent study survey from the School Nutrition Association. The high levels of debt, potentially a sign that families are struggling to make ends meet. 

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In Alexandria, 10 out of the 18 schools qualify for the USDA's Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools in low-income areas to give all their kids in that particular school free lunches, regardless of the individual student's eligibility. 

But for students at other schools in the district, an application still needs to be submitted to be eligible for free meals. While it is ACPS policy to never turn away a student if they don't have money to pay for lunch, Coleman says he hopes this push will help families understand the programs that are available to them. 

School officials are encouraging families to fill out the paperwork to see if they qualify. They can fill out the application online, or even come to ACPS' central office where staff will walk them through the process. 

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