Gainesville’s ‘Settle the Debt’ Mom Writes Va School Lunch Legislation

| January 23, 2018 | 0 Comments | Education

Del. Danica Roem and Adelle Settle for the Freshman Delegate Swearing in, Jan. 20. (Photo courtesy of Adelle Settle.)

Adelle Settle of Gainesville is working with Del. Danica Roem (D) of the 13th District to introduce legislation that would make sure Virginia public school students can receive a hot lunch regardless if they cannot pay or owe money on their lunch cards.

Settle first gained regional attention last summer for her Settle the Debt initiative by which people donated money to pay off lunch debts accrued by Prince William County School students.

Around mid-July the Prince William School Division accrued approximately $300,000 in debt from unpaid student meals. Settle’s initiative raised $25,000 towards paying down that debt. While she ran a successful campaign, she recognized that is not enough. Policy needs to change.

Recently, she has teamed up with Roem who is one of Virginia’s new delegate. She represents parts Manassas, Manassas Park and Gainesville. Together they wrote legislation that would allow all students to receive the same school lunch as their peers regardless if they are able to pay at the time. The bill would also create equity among what students eat when they are at school.

House Bill 1477 School boards; school meals; practices is currently in the Educational Committee of the Virginia General Assembly House of Delegates, and would have to be approved by committee before moving to the floor. Settle hopes it will at least have the change to be seen by the entire house.

“It’s super ambitious” Settle said of the bill. “Every kid would get the same nutritional hot meal whether they can pay for it or not.”

Students would still be able to keep lunch accounts that accrue debt, but according to the proposed legislation, schools would not be able to use collection agencies and would not be able to carry over the debt from year to year.

Additionally, the debt would have to be paid by the school division as a whole, not individual schools as some schools would incur more debt than others, adding to the inequity between schools in a community.

Schools are also required to attempt to help the student enter into a free or reduced lunch program if they qualify.

Further, schools can utilize fundraising, donations or business partnerships to pay student lunch debts.

Last year, as Settle was pushing to help students pay off their debts, Prince William County Schools changed its school lunch policy. If a student’s family is unable to pay a set amount of debt then that child can be denied a hot lunch and instead given juice and a cereal bar at the discretion of the principal.

Debt is capped at $100 for elementary school students, $75 for middle school students and $50 for high school students with some leeway due to site-based management. 

Settle believes a snack is not the same as a nutritious meal, but she also understand that $300,000 is a lot of money for the school division to absorb.

“I totally sympathize with the fact that our schools need more money and there is a lot of competing issues, but I personally think that feeding children is a very basic function,” she said, noting they cannot learn nor succeed if they are not eating nutritious meals.

“All of our educational goals are excellent, but you can’t get to that unless our kids are at a base level.”

To assist Virginia schools in saving money, she is also supportive of a bill that would reduce standardized testing, noting that that money is taken out of the communities and given towards large educational corporations. And many experts agree that standardized testing does not improve outcomes, it only measures them.

She also disagrees with providing a substitute meal that may be nutritious, but sets some students apart.

“I know they’re cheaper by a bit, but if your are going to buy alternate meals you end up shaming students. Students should be assured that when they come to school they are going to get the same meal as anyone else.”

She realizes there is never going to be absolute equity, but she does not want to have children punished for their parents not be able to afford their lunch, especially young children who cannot work themselves and are at the mercy of their parents’ income.

Adelle Settle attends the Freshman Delegate Ceremony in Richmond, Jan. 20. (Photo by Mike Beaty.)

Settle has received some pushback about the cost to the school division, and how ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch.’ She recognizes tax money will have to cover the costs of some of these lunches, but would argue that feeding children is paramount. 

Settle recognizes there are excellent programs for students such as free and reduced lunch, but they do not go far enough, especially in Northern Virginia where there is a high cost of living.

To qualify for a free or reduced lunch a family of four needs to make approximately less than $33K, or $44K respectively per year. However, those rates are set nationally, and especially in this area, people can make more and still struggle to pay bills or be food secure.

“Families who are working very hard but are making over those caps do not qualify,” Settle explained. “They are just left.”

Settle worked on the bill with Roem who Settle describes as very responsive, very helpful and easy to talk to. She said Del. Hala Ayala (D-51st) has been supportive as well.

Settle also worked hard to build coalitions within the community, and she especially thanks PWCS School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers (D) for being helpful in spreading the message and for donating a significant amount himself.

Settle tells people to reach other to their local elected officials to share their concerns. “They work for you if they’re your elected delegate whether they are in your party or not in your party. Reach out and get to know them.”

She tells people to attend local meetings. “Show up, and ask your questions publicly, reach out the the media if you are not getting your questions answered.”

Roem said Settle is an example of the great change that can be made when representatives listen to moms, listen to women who made up more than half the population, and listen to people with different experiences.

“Women tend to bring a strong sense of a collaborative spirit and great ideas based upon lived experience whether it’s parenting, intimate involvement in their children’s education, to transportation policy, civil rights, or the judicial system,” Roem said, “and yet our voices are often missing from the negotiating table.”

She notes that for too long legislative bodies have been primarily straight white men. ‘That’s not reflective of our society; it’s not so homogeneous.”

Settle wholeheartedly agreed. 

“For so long women’s voices have been absent from the table. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table. Your voice matters and your life experience matters,” said Settle. “Times are changing and women are running and it’s an amazing thing.”

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