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Federal Program Will Provide Free Meals to All Loudoun Students

All Loudoun County Public Schools students may receive breakfast, lunch, snacks, or supper meals free of charge this year regardless of income eligibility, thanks to an extension of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that reimburses schools and childcare centers for meals.

Prior to the pandemic, only students who qualified as low-income could receive free and subsidized meals. Each student, 18 years old or younger, may receive one free meal daily, on school days only. Second meals will cost $4.10. Distance learners may pick up meals on Monday mornings at area high schools starting Aug. 30. Distance learners will receive seven days of breakfast, lunch, or supper.

Free meals for all students began in March 2020 when schools went virtual because of COVID-19. The program continued through the 2020-2021 school year, and into the summer.

During the summer, Loudoun saw a significant increase in food insecurity among children; in 2019, the nonprofit Feeding America Action reported that 1.9% of children in Loudoun County were food insecure. By 2021, that rate has nearly doubled, to 3.6%.

The number of Title I eligible and served schools in the district has grown by 33.3% since the 2020-2021 school year. There are now 20 Title I eligible and served schools, meaning 40% or more of students qualify to receive free or reduced meals.

After spending most of her career in school buildings, School Board member Denise Corbo (At Large), a former teacher, sees the importance of free meals for all students while many families endure dire financial times. She recalls monitoring elementary school breakfast.

“Several students would enter the building and one would enter the cafeteria, and the others would stand by the door because they didn’t receive free meals. Even if I’d try to encourage them to come in and sit with the friend, they wouldn’t feel comfortable,” Corbo said. “Free meals for all removes this barrier. All are welcomed and encouraged to eat.”

In the Leesburg District, several schools edged into the Title I eligible category during the pandemic. Still, with a Title I designation, some children remain hungry.

“The increase in hungry students is real. I appreciate that we’re able to provide this because children learn best when their physical needs are met. It’s difficult to learn when you’re hungry. We’re supporting the whole child,” School Board member Beth Barts (Leesburg) said.

Barts said free meals for all will also eliminate the stigma students from low-income families may feel.

The free summer meal walk-up service ended on Monday. School begins in Loudoun County on Aug. 26.