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Legislature approves more free meals for disadvantaged students, but some schools hope for more

School lunch bar at Lewes Elementary School on May 3, 2024.
Sarah Petrowich
Delaware Public Media
School lunch bar at Lewes Elementary School on May 3, 2024.

Last week, the Delaware legislature unanimously passed a bill transitioning students who qualify for reduced-price public school meals to receiving free meals.

Jessica Farrand, the Director of Nutrition Services for the Red Clay Consolidated School District, says lawmakers took a step in the right direction by allowing more free school meals within the state.

Farrand says Red Clay already implemented free school meals for students who qualify for reduced-price meals, but receiving state dollars to fund that program means the district can allocate their money elsewhere.

She explains Red Clay will receive around $18,000, which will allow the district to re-invest in bettering their nutrition services.

“In essence, it still is beneficial for us even though our students won't necessarily see a change since we're already offering that benefit," she said.

Farrand hopes lawmakers will work towards eventually offering free school meals for all students, noting that 19 of the 26 schools in the Red Clay Consolidated School District federally qualify to give out free meals to the entire student population, but says the district still ended the year with $22,000 in meal debt.

She explains 20% of students with meal debt account for 80% of that figure.

“It’s a very small few that probably should have filled out a meal benefit form, but didn’t, that are actually carrying the bulk of this debt.”

She says guardians may avoid filling out the forms because they require sensitive financial information, therefore she hopes the state continues to work on funding free school meals for all to reduce the need for any forms.

While the state legislature initially considered covering all student meals, it would have cost around $40 million annually versus the $250,000 price tag this program carries.

Farrand says the importance of providing a healthy, well-balanced meal for students cannot be understated and believes some inefficiencies could be worked out to reduce that $40 million price tag.

"The meals that we provide... students are getting the full range of types of foods that they need within a meal. They're also getting access to fruits and vegetables that they might otherwise not have access to or maybe are just not going to be included in their packed lunch," she said. "So, it's a little bit of an equalizer, I think, for our students. If we want all students to have equal opportunity for success, the food is a part of that because in terms of growth and development, food is a necessity."

The General Assembly also unanimously passed an additional bill that prohibits Delaware public schools from restricting student participation in extracurriculars due to an outstanding meal debt.

Under the bill, local education agencies, including charter schools, may not prohibit a student from participating in band, clubs, homecoming, interscholastic sports, prom, graduation or student government if they have an outstanding debt for unpaid school meals.

While Delaware’s 2025 budget carves out the $250,000 needed annually for the free meal program, both bills awaits Gov. John Carney’s signature to become official.

Before residing in Dover, Delaware, Sarah Petrowich moved around the country with her family, spending eight years in Fairbanks, Alaska, 10 years in Carbondale, Illinois and four years in Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2023 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science.
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