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What happens when USDA’s free lunch program runs out? Options for Hampton Roads students

School nutrition staff became essential workers, cooking up thousands of meals a day for students over the last 11 months.

NORFOLK, Va. — Even when Hampton Roads schools first closed almost a year ago, their kitchens never did.

Nutrition staff became essential workers, cooking up thousands of meals a day for students over the last 11 months. The food is free for students until June 30, 2021, through the USDA’s extended program.

It’s a program many Hampton Roads families have relied on to get through this pandemic.

"They stand here and literally cry and just tell us how appreciative they are and that this made the difference of having a meal and paying a bill. That has been the whole time," said Ocean View Elementary Nutrition Staff Jackie Hines. 

Hines is one of the many hunger heroes in Norfolk Public Schools who have boxed two million "grab-n-go" meals since last March.

NPS has 34 food distribution sites, operated Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

“They get a hot supper,” said Nutrition Manager Shia Hatchett. “Then they get breakfast, lunch, and a snack to take home with them for the next day. And we give them weekend bags too.”

It’s free nationwide for all kids 18 and younger through federal funds, until the summer.

Right now, the USDA’s extended pandemic food program is set to end in June. If it does not get extended again, some school divisions will have to switch back to a program where families must apply for free or reduced meals, based upon eligibility. That’s how it works under the federal National School Breakfast and Lunch program, which has been in place for years.

However, some school divisions -- like Norfolk -- qualify for free meals year-round.

“School divisions that have a large number of low-income families can offer free breakfast and lunch without meal applications,” said NPS Director of School Nutrition Lisa Winter.

Winter said any family in a division with an application process should apply.

“Even if they never qualified before, they may qualify now,” Winter said,

Many families who never needed help before the pandemic need it now. According to the organization Feeding America, one in nine people is battling hunger.

The Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia says more people are now eligible for food programs like SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“SNAP is the one federal nutrition program that almost levels the playing field in enabling working families to put food on the table,” said Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia Director of Advocacy Leah Williams-Rumbley.

You can reach out to your local human or social services department to see if you qualify.