FRONT ROYAL — Warren County Public Schools students could eat for free again next year even after the current federal program providing free meals ends this summer.

Food Service Department General Manager Nickole Kinsey gave her report for most of the 2021-2022 year at the School Board’s meeting last week. Chairwoman Dr. Kristin J. Pence, Vice Chairman Ralph A. Rinaldi and members Antoinette D. Funk, Andrea M. Lo and Melanie C. Salins attended the meeting.

The federal government's program that provides free meals to all students is due to expire on June 30 expiration and the government doesn't plan to renew it, leaving hundreds of students to pay for their meals or risk going hungry, Kinsey reported. However, the School Board has an option that would allow the division to continue offering free meals to all students next year, Kinsey said. The board may take action on the option at its next meeting.

Kinsey noted her report does not yet include June’s figures. The department provides food service through Sodexo. She reported the following department data:

• Students enrolled, including pre-kindergarten: 5,181

• Revenue collected in the school year: $4,039,360

• Money spent on operations: $3,049,596

• Excess revenue in the food service budget: $989,764

• Total meals served: 1,058,313 (428,429 breakfast, 562,140 lunch and 67,744 a la carte meals and 4,512 adults served) 

• Average number of meals served per day: 4,875

Once the federal program expires, the division will return to providing meals free of charge or at a reduced rate for those students who qualify. Families must apply to receive this benefit.

“We do know there’s people who will not apply because they’re embarrassed or they don’t want their name on anything, and so we know our free-and reduced (numbers) could be higher,” Kinsey said. 

The Food Service Department can qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision option of the National School Lunch Act that enables schools to provide meals to all students for the 2022-23 school year. Kinsey said she has not yet run her department through CEP.

Not all schools qualify under the CEP because they do not have more than the required 40% students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. But the division could enter the CEP program as one district by grouping the percentages of eligible students in each school for an average of 41.3%. This would qualify all Warren County public schools for the program.

The department would receive an estimated $2,233,260 through the program and $380,000 in additional money, for a total of $2,613,260. The department would spend an estimated $2,602,300 to provide the meals, leaving an excess of $10,960.

The department receives more revenue than needed to provide the meals for free through the current program, Kinsey said. The new program would provide far less extra revenue but it would mean extending free meals to all students, Kinsey said.

“We would just be very careful with any money that we spend because — and we’re always careful with money that we spend — but we would have to be extra diligent because otherwise we would lose money as a department,” Kinsey said.

The department could still lose money running the program, Kinsey said. But she recommended that the division try the program for one year to see if the department can break even or even make money.

If the department loses money, the division would exit the program for the schools that don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals, Kinsey said. The schools required to participate in the standard program would continue to receive the free or reduced-cost meals, Kinsey said.

But the division’s contract with Sodexo includes a guarantee that the division would make $72,750 in food service, Kinsey said. The department likely would not make that much money if it participates in the district-wide CEP, Kinsey said. The department could break even or make some money, she added. In order to participate in the program, Kinsey suggests that the guarantee be waived for the next school year through an amendment to the contract.

Warren County Public Schools continues to distribute free meals through June.

Visit https://www.wcps.k12.va.us/index.php/central-office/food-service to see the schedule with pick-up times and locations.

– Contact Alex Bridges at abridges@nvdaily.com

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