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Tammy’s son attends virtual school from their home, a hotel room, in Wisconsin. After he’d become a victim of bullying the family turned to online learning, but Tammy says the financial cost of not having access to the National School Lunch Program is detrimental.
“Not being able to participate in the National School Lunch Program hurts us financially,” says the Wisconsin parent, “I spend more in food than in rent just to feed him healthy food.”
A 1946 law requires school meals to be served only at a physical school building, leaving approximately 347,000* virtual public school students like Tammy’s son without access to the same free lunch benefits as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
The first virtual school was founded in 1995 in Eugene, Oregon by nine district teachers and yet, nearly 30 years later, public education hasn’t fully adopted innovative ways of providing nutrition access for all their students. But COVID-19 proved it can be done. When districts switched to emergency remote teaching in response to the pandemic, one successful school lunch program run by the Ohio Department of Education allowed students and families to access food via the use of EBT cards (much like welfare programs nationwide).
Until the law is permanently changed, parents of public virtual school students will be left to restrict their budgets in ways that shouldn’t be heard of in 2023.
"There are times when my 17-year-old son and I have been forced to skip a meal or two during the day so we would have enough food for dinner,” writes Vicki, a parent from Ohio.
“I only receive $62 a month in SNAP benefits to feed both of us. I try to only eat once a day to ensure my son can eat three meals. The cost at the store leaves us struggling, and I have had to go to the food pantry more often to ensure we can get through the month."
Rosanna, a single, disabled mother from Wisconsin says she will also limit her meals to conserve money for her food budget.
“There are times that I don't eat a full meal, so I can save food for my son. My mother lives with us, but she also only receives social security once a month, and with all the bills and rent we still can't afford all the food we need. It is hard, but as the adult you always put your kid first before anything."
There are many more families who echo similar experiences in their struggle to afford nutritious meals for their children.
This year, PSO has been working to help families living with food insecurity and in February PSO President Letrisha Weber and Vice President Cynthia Williams sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stating, “In an era where families and children need flexibility for a variety of reasons, no child should be penalized for voluntarily participating in a public school environment allowed in nearly every state.”
And parents do feel penalized.
Amanda from Pennsylvania says, “I have had to sacrifice paying bills to ensure that my children have food. I don't think it’s fair that just because we chose virtual school for safety reasons that we should be excluded from the same benefits of traditional school families.”
In June, advocates met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill as part of PSO’s Parent Leadership Conference to raise awareness of the school lunch issue, and parents have continued to keep the momentum going in their home states.
“Expanding the National [School] Lunch Program in California to include online charter school students would alleviate the financial burden on families, ensuring that no student goes hungry,” writes PSO Secretary Nicole Conragan for the Morgan Hill Times.
“A healthy body is essential for a healthy mind, and by extending this program, we demonstrate our commitment to the well-being of all students, regardless of their chosen educational path.”
At PSO, we’re fighting for the day that becomes a reality for all public virtual school students.
Is your family impacted by this issue? If so, Congress needs to hear from you! Contact us to share your story.
*There were 656,000 full-time k-12 virtual school students in 2020-21 school year (Digital Learning Collaborative). 57% of virtual school families qualify for free or reduced lunch. This number may be larger as many families do not submit documentation due to the lack of lunch benefit.