LURAY — At a recent meeting, four Page County School Board members voted not to pursue the opportunity to provide two elementary schools free breakfast and lunches, despite the school division's growing problem with meal debt.
Luray Elementary School and Stanley Elementary School are eligible to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision at a predicted break-even point with no financial gain or loss for the division, according to a recommendation made by Director of Food Service Virginia Jeffries.
CEP offers free breakfast and free lunch to all students.
The Community Eligibility Provision is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas through the United States Department of Agriculture.
CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications. Instead, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, according to the USDA website.
Despite this, School Board members Tommy Lansbury, Jackie Sullivan-Smoot, Sharon Lucas and Randy Bailey voted against the recommendation by Jeffries in a June meeting of the board.
School Board members Shawn Printz and Rolf Gubler voted for the program.
All six board members were contacted for comment, but only Bailey returned the Daily New-Record's request for inquiry.
However, Bailey said he would not comment on why he voted against the CEP.
"As for why, I have no comment," Bailey said, adding that this was not the first time the recommendation of the CEP for certain Page County schools has been made. "If it's made again next year, the School Board will consider it at that time," Bailey said.
According to Jeffries, the board voted against the CEP for Luray and Stanley because they could not offer it to all schools, as not all schools would qualify for the reimbursement.
Currently Page County has a lunch debt of $33,164. Some students carry upward of $800 in meal debt.
The school division has allowed students to charge lunches for many years. The policy is that debt continues until the student graduates, and at that time is paid off thanks to the community fund through the Page County Education Foundation.
"It's been a difficult issue in Page County," Jeffries said. "This is a very economically depressed area." She said that status made the School Board's decision not to pursue the CEP for two schools even more frustrating.
Meal debt is not an issue that's unique to Page County. It's a problem facing school divisions across the commonwealth. And the "why" can be difficult to nail down.
New legislation passed just this year prohibits school employees from discussing a student's lunch debt directly with the student. Although cafeteria workers have never talked to the younger students about their lunch debt, it was often an effective method at the high school level as those students might have been unaware they had meal debt, Jeffries said.
Now, those communications have to go directly through the families of students. Many families qualify for free or reduced lunch but for whatever reason, don't fill out the necessary paperwork.
"I don't know the magic answer," Jeffries said.