While Maryland enacts paid family and medical leave, Congress is stalled
WASHINGTON – Maryland earlier this month became the 10th state to create a paid family and medical leave program for workers, but Congress appears no nearer to enacting similar legislation.
The closest federal lawmakers came to overhauling family and medical leave policy came last fall when Democrats sought improvements as part of the Biden administration’s $1.75 trillion social safety net package, also known as the Build Back Better Act. But that legislation stalled, in part because of the inclusion of proposed family and medical leave changes.
Proponents of family and medical leave reforms, including Maryland’s two Democratic senators, are frustrated with the stalemate.
“For far too long, our nation’s lack of reliable family and medical leave has held our economy back and limited our workforce’s potential,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen told Capital News Service. “Hard-working Americans deserve to take leave when they are sick or caring for a loved one without worrying about losing their job or making ends meet.”
Van Hollen added that he was glad to see that the Maryland General Assembly had passed its own Family and Medical Leave Act and that assorted COVID-19 relief packages had been passed by Congress during the pandemic to temporarily extend family and sick leave, but American families needed a more permanent solution.
His colleague, Sen. Ben Cardin, agreed.
“The U.S. is the only OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) country without a paid leave program,” Cardin said. “Clearly, this is not the leadership example we should be setting as a nation.”
Maryland’s family and medical leave legislation called the Time to Care Act of 2022, passed April 9 by a supermajority vote in the General Assembly following Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto the previous day.
Maryland now joins a patchwork of states where leave benefits vary, depending on an employee’s location, choice of profession, and the size of the company an employee works for.
The limited leave policies in the United States stand in contrast to other nations that have become renowned for their more generous benefits, including paid extended leave and maternity leaves.
Bulgaria leads the world by offering 58.6 weeks of minimum paid maternity leave with a guarantee of job security, according to the World Population Review.
By contrast, the United States – under the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 – currently offers 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period to care for a new child, care for a seriously ill family member, or recover from a serious illness.
Under the act, “employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles,” according to the Department of Labor.
That law has shortcomings, leave advocates say.
“The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, remains the only federal law that offers protection for private-sector employees who need time away from work to manage their own health or care for a loved one,” said Gayle Goldin, senior advisor to the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.
“While monumental, the FMLA only guarantees some workers unpaid time away from work,” she said. “Even when eligible for FMLA, many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.”
But expanding family and medical leave appears to be a reach with Democrats holding a bare majority in the Senate and at least one of their own party opposed to making those benefits part of a broader social safety net bill.
“I don’t think it belongs in the bill,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said on CNN in November, referring to the leave provisions in last fall’s Build Back Better Act. “That’s a piece of legislation that really is needed from the standpoint of if we do it and do it right.”
Manchin said he believed the policy could garner bipartisan support if it was done as a stand-alone bill.
“Let’s get it done in regular order through the process. It’ll last. It’ll be forever,” Manchin said.
In the meantime, the absence of more comprehensive and uniform family and medical leave policies poses a challenge for many families.
Vicky Prosser, 33, of Triangle, Virginia, was a high school Spanish teacher with the Prince William County Public Schools at the time of her second pregnancy. Her husband is in the military and he is changing assignments, requiring them to move.
Once the couple moves, Prosser said, “the likelihood of me being at a job for at least 12 months before I have a baby is just not high,” following the birth of her second child.
“And so it’s just really frustrating that because I moved with my husband for his military service, I don’t get the same benefits for my medical leave after delivering a baby as someone else would,” she said. “So I would love to see that updated to have allowances for military spouses who are having babies.”
Prosser noted that when she became a Spanish teacher with the Prince William County School system and was pregnant with her second child, she had not yet been an employee for 12-months, and did not qualify for family and medical leave act benefits.
“So, I had to take unpaid leave, and was not guaranteed a job at the end of my maternity leave…the whole thing was just incredibly frustrating,” she said.
Rachel Williams, 35, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, and an employee of the Millipor Sigma pharmaceutical company, said she had a much easier experience with family and medical leave than Prosser, although it was still not without its issues.
“My company really streamlined the process,” she said, regarding the time off for her pregnancy. “The initial paperwork, basically, my provider filled it out, and submitted it several months in advance. The fact that I got 100% paid for 14 weeks was pretty incredible.”
Williams also noted that she previously had worked for a much smaller company, which was following federal guidelines from 2010 and only provided eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave.
For Katie Garber, a mother of two from Takoma Park, Maryland, who is a social worker in private practice specializing in care for older adults, her experience was more mixed.
Garber, who was working for a very small non-profit that didn’t have the required number of employees for federal family and medical leave benefits, said she wound up essentially bargaining for her time off to have her first daughter.
“They didn’t really have to give it to me,” she said. “But I was a valued employee, it was a small office, and my executive director at the time really wanted to set the precedent that they wanted to be family-friendly. So I took the 16 weeks.”
Garber added that she felt lucky that her job had been held for her while she was on leave. Under a different director managing her, it might have been a different story, she said.
“At the time, there was no compensation at all,” Garber said. “So, my husband and I went from a two-earner household, you know, basically two adults with two incomes, to three people – two adults and one child income – for several months, which was definitely challenging.”
“I was so lucky to get the leave the way I did,” she said. “And I don’t feel that that’s how, especially a federal regulation, should be.”
In the case of LGBTQ+ individuals, requests to employers for family and medical leave in states that lack explicit protections can lead to employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Some fear the stigma they could face if they reveal the need to take time off for HIV-related care or transgender-specific treatment,” according to the Human Rights Campaign website. “Too many others, especially transgender people of color and those who are low-income, may face other forms of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, housing instability, and violence.”
There are often additional obstacles with employers to overcome in the case of LGBTQ+ workers.
“The challenges faced by workers who request time off from work for medically necessary transition-related health care are significant and painful, ranging from health insurance plans that don’t cover comprehensive trans health care and worries about being outed in the workplace, to flat out harassment,” said Liam Miranda, senior research manager for the Human Rights Campaign.
The Biden administration still is advocating for more comprehensive leave coverage.
“This administration understands the importance of paid family and medical leave to protect workers, especially those from historically marginalized communities,” Women’s Bureau director Wendy Chun-Hoon said. “Studies show that access to paid leave improves child health and well-being, maternal health, families’ economic security, worker retention, labor force participation, and worker productivity and morale.”
The House last fall approved expanding leave benefits in the doomed Build Back Better Act. But Manchin’s objections and GOP opposition in the Senate remain.
Separate from the Build Back Better Act, legislation to expand leave benefits has been introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York. But neither bill has seen any movement.
“In Washington, there is never a shortage of competing priorities, so the more visible and vocal in their support that members of the public can be, the better,” Cardin said. “We need everyone to amplify their calls for reform and to communicate this as a priority.”
By CHRIS BARYLICK
Capital News Service
Suez Service ‘First-in call’ expands Port of VA connection to SE Asian markets
The number of first-in vessel services calling The Port of Virginia® is growing and last week the port welcomed the latest addition to that list, the ONE Munchen, which left Southeast Asia and headed straight to Virginia. Reworked service will compliment Port’s newest rail link to Memphis.
The arrival of the ONE Munchen last Tuesday at Norfolk International Terminals signals the beginning of a reworked EC4 vessel service that now has The Port of Virginia as the first US East Coast stop. The weekly service links the port with several important Southeast Asian markets.
“The cargo owners will benefit from this reworked service because a first-in port call allows them to get their cargo quicker and it gives cargo owners more markets, more options, for moving their exports and imports,” said Stephen A. Edwards, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. “This service is taking advantage of our ability to efficiently handle big ships, their cargo and our rail reach into critical Midwest population and manufacturing centers.”
Edwards said the reworked EC4 will pair nicely with the port’s service to its newest rail market, Memphis. In early April, the port began offering daily rail service to Norfolk Southern’s regional intermodal terminal in Rossville, which is just outside of Memphis.
“Both exporters and importers were asking us [Norfolk Southern and the port] to develop a high-quality Memphis rail service,” Edwards said. “Now we have service into Memphis, which is an important step south and west for us. Couple that with another first-in vessel call that uses the Suez Canal and this works to the advantage of cargo owners for several reasons. The first is an alternative to the US West Coast, second is speed to market and third is access to our growing rail network.”
Edwards also pointed out that The Port of Virginia was ranked the nation’s second highest performing in The Container Port Performance Index 2022 (CPPI), which was published in earlier this month. The CPPI ranks the world’s leading container ports based on data collected by World Bank, with contributions from S&P Market Intelligence IHS Markit.
“Our performance is a clear reason why we are attracting first-in vessel calls and new rail services,” Edwards said. “Our ability to service vessels and get them back to sea quickly and safely is being recognized by independent sources. We have a $1.4 billion expansion effort underway and the improvements we are making are going create even greater efficiency and continue to drive cargo to and through this port.”
In the report, Virginia’s port was 52nd out of the world’s top 370 ports. The rankings are based on total number of hours a ship spends at a port, which is measure as the elapsed time between when a ship reaches a port to its departure from the berth having completed its cargo exchange.
There are four ocean carriers in the EC4 service, ONE (Ocean Network Express), Hapag-Lloyd, Yang Ming and HMM (Hyundai Merchant Marine), that all contribute vessels to the service; the 14,000 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) ONE Munchen is owned by ONE. The port call rotation includes Kaohsiung, Xiamen, Hong Kong Yantian, Cai Mep, Singapore, (Suez Canal transit), Norfolk, Savannah, Charleston, New York.
VDOT lifts lane closures for Memorial Day weekend to kick off the summer travel season
Each year, Memorial Day weekend is a busy travel time for motorists making their first warm-weather weekend getaways to the beach, the Blue Ridge, or beyond. To help travelers spend more time at their destination than in traffic, the Virginia Department of Transportation will be suspending most highway work zones and lifting most lane closures on interstates and other major roads in Virginia from noon on Friday, May 26, until noon on Tuesday, May 30.
While lane closures will be lifted in most locations, motorists may encounter semi-permanent work zones that remain in place during this time. Check VDOT’s Weekly Lane Closures and Travel Advisories for the latest travel alerts in your area and around the state.
Additionally, VDOT offers several resources to help plan travel ahead of time.
TRAVEL TRENDS MAP HELPS PREDICT PEAK CONGESTION
Based on historical data, VDOT’s online interactive travel trends map shows peak congestion periods anticipated on Virginia interstates during the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend holiday period. While it cannot precisely predict when congestion will occur this year, it can help motorists avoid travel when roads have historically been busiest.
Based on the historical data:
• On Interstate 95 northbound, heavy congestion is expected on Friday and Saturday between Fredericksburg and the D.C. line and on Monday between Richmond and Northern Virginia.
• On Interstate 95, southbound, congestion is expected between the D.C. line and Richmond on Friday and Saturday and on Sunday and Monday in Northern Virginia.
• In the Hampton Roads area, congestion is also likely, especially on Interstate 64, approaching the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel eastbound on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and going westbound on Friday and Monday.
• On Interstate 81 northbound, pockets of congestion may appear on Monday between Roanoke and Winchester.
PLAN AHEAD WITH VDOT 511: REAL-TIME TRAFFIC INFO AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
VDOT’s free mobile 511 app offers information about construction, traffic, incidents, and congestion, as well as access to traffic cameras, weather, EV charging stations, and more. Use 511’s “speak ahead” option to alert you to incidents on your route.
Traffic information is also available at 511Virginia.org or by calling 511 on any phone.
NORTHERN VIRGINIA HIGH OCCUPANCY VEHICLE (HOV) SCHEDULE AND OTHER INFORMATION
• All rush-hour tolls on the 66 Express Lanes Inside the Beltway will be lifted on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29.
• Find directional schedules for the reversible Interstate 95 and 395 express lanes and information for the 495 Express Lanes at www.expresslanes.com.
HAMPTON ROADS HOV SCHEDULE, TUNNELS, AND OTHER INFORMATION
• I-64/I-264/I-564 HOV Diamond Lanes and 64 Express Lanes – HOV restrictions and Express Lanes tolls will be lifted on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29.
• Travel to Virginia Beach – Peninsula traffic to Virginia Beach is encouraged to use the I-664 Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (MMMBT) as an alternative to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (HRBT). If traveling to Virginia Beach, take I-664 south to the MMMBT. Then take the Portsmouth/Norfolk exit (exit 15A) to I-264 east to Virginia Beach.
• Travel to Outer Banks – Traffic to the North Carolina Outer Banks should use I-664 and the MMMBT as an alternative to the HRBT to save time. From I-664 South, take the Portsmouth/Norfolk exit to I-264 East (exit 15A). Continue on I-264 East through the Downtown Tunnel and take the first exit to I-464 South (exit 8). From I-464, continue south onto the Chesapeake Expressway (Route 168). Continue south on Route 168 to the Outer Banks.
• Note: Motorists should be advised of potential lane closures and truck traffic restrictions on the Chesapeake Expressway (Route 168) due to recent damage sustained to the bridge. Travel updates for the Chesapeake Expressway bridge can be found on the City of Chesapeake’s website at www.cityofchesapeake.net/3171/Rt-168-Bypass-Bridge-Updates
• Do your part to make travel safer for all:
• If you plan to drink, have a designated driver
• Don’t drive distracted, and speak up if someone else is doing so
• Buckle up and ensure children and car seats are secured
• Maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you
• Use your signals for lane changes and turns
• Cars can heat dangerously fast on hot days: don’t leave children, elderly persons, or pets in parked cars for any amount of time
For questions or to report hazardous road conditions, contact VDOT’s 24-hour Customer Service Center by visiting my.vdot.virginia.gov or calling 800-FOR-ROAD (367-7623).
Improvements at the 54th PA Monument to be featured in events commemorating the Battle of New Market
A single granite Union soldier has stood along Rt 11 north of New Market since 1905. The base of the statue explains why: “Erected to the memory of the heroic dead of the 54th Regt. PA Vet. Vol. Infantry who gave their lives in defense of their country.” Over the weekend of May 20-21 descendants of the 54th PA soldiers will be on hand to celebrate recent access and interpretive improvements to the monument during the 159th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of New Market. In addition to civilian living history, Civil War surgeons’ displays and Civil War long-arms lectures and demonstrations, will be on site all weekend. All activities will be at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park and the Virginia Museum of the Civil War.
In 1905, veterans of the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry erected the heroic-size granite statue on their position during the battle. It featured military iconography: stars and four 8” polished granite spheres on the base. The statue was owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania until 1988 when Pennsylvania deeded the small parcel of land and the monument to New Market Battlefield State Historical Park and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
A generous grant from the Elizabeth Van Lew Detached Tent 1 of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War, 1861-1865 was awarded to the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. The grant enabled the park to create safe and barrier free access and enhanced interpretation of the 54th PA Monument. The grant also permitted restoration of the granite base of the statue. “The monument restoration and the barrier-free trail enhancement would not have been possible without the generosity of the Daughters of the Union Veterans,” stated Brittney Philips, Site Manager of the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park.
Mid-afternoon on May 15, 1864, during a thunderous rainstorm, the Union cavalry charged down Rt 11—the Valley Pike—toward the Confederate right flank but were turned back by heavy fire. At the same time the Union infantry attacked the Confederate line around the Bushong Farmhouse. The 1st West Virginia led the charge, followed by the 54th PA.
Suddenly, without warning, the 1st WV retreated leaving the 54th PA on their own. When the 54th crested the rise on, they were surprised by a large number of Confederate troops approaching through a ravine to their front. As the 54th fell back under devastating fire, they made a determined stand in the cedar grove that covered this hillside, buying precious time for the Union Army to retreat from the battlefield. Suffering a 30% casualty rate, the second highest of any unit in this battle, the men of the 54th remembered this area as the “Bloody Cedars” due to the cedar trees scattered across the field.
The 159th Commemoration will be held at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War/New Market Battlefield State Historical Park at 8895 George Collins Drive, New Market, VA 22844 on May 20-21 from 10:00am – 4:00pm. For additional information please call 866-515-1864 or visit our website www.vmi.edu/newmarket.
Virginia’s Shenandoah is #1 national park in USA
In celebration of National Parks week, Travel Lemming released a data-backed ranking of all 63 US national parks. Shenandoah, Virginia’s only national park, surprised by clinching the top spot as the best national park in the US.
Travel Lemming’s national parks ranking is based on an analysis of data scoring each park across six factors: affordability, accessibility, biodiversity, crowds, reviews, and weather.
The report revealed the following insights:
- Shenandoah National Park tops the list at 1st overall, with exceptional scores in affordability, accessibility, and biodiversity.
- Shenandoah ranks as the 2nd most affordable National Park in the USA. The only more affordable park in America is Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
- With 2,563 species, Shenandoah ranks 6th for biodiversity.
- Shenandoah ranks #7 in accessibility, because it is relatively close to major airports like Dulles International Airport, which is just 55.5 miles driving distance away.
- Shenandoah is the 19th best reviewed national park in the USA, with an average visitor rating of 4.77 out of 5.
- Several lesser-known parks rank in the top 20, challenging conventional ideas of the top US national parks.
- Iconic national parks fared worse in the data, largely due to crowds and affordability. Grand Canyon National Park was ranked #15, Yellowstone National Park at position #23, and Yosemite National Park at slot #34.
The top 10 US national parks in the USA according the report are:
|Ranking||National Park Name||State|
|1||Shenandoah National Park||VA|
|2||North Cascades National Park||WA|
|3||Biscayne National Park||FL|
|4 (tie)||Kings Canyon National Park||CA|
|4 (tie)||Sequoia National Park||CA|
|6||Everglades National Park||FL|
|7||Big Bend National Park||TX|
|8||Mammoth Cave National Park||KY|
|9||Death Valley National Park||CA, NV|
|10||Channel Islands National Park||CA|
The full ranking can be found at: travellemming.com/best-national-parks-in-usa.
Travel Lemming Senior Travel Writer McKenna Mobley commented: “I have traveled the world, and can confidently say that the USA national parks are unparalleled, making them one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. Every US national park offers its own special flair, so in some sense ranking them is like ranking music genres — they’re all good!”
“However, I hope this report highlights the fact that some of America’s less famous parks offer far more than what meets the eye. Sometimes the best experiences can be found at hidden park gems that are off the lemming path.”
National Parks were ranked on six factors, based on the following data:
- Crowds – Number of visits per acre of park land in 2022. (Sources: NPS 2022 Recreation Visit Data, Wikipedia Acreage Data)
- Reviews – Average visitor review score out of 5. (Sources: Google Maps, Yelp, TripAdvisor)
- Weather – Number of months with a comfortable average temperature, defined as between 50 and 90 degrees fahrenheit. (Source: NOAA NECI US Climate Normals)
- Affordability – Average nightly cost of a nearby quality hotel room during the first weekend of the park’s most popular month. (Sources: Booking, Google Travel, Hotel Websites)
- Accessibility – Average of driving distance to the park from the closest FAA Primary Airport and from the closest hub airport. (Sources: FAA, Google Maps Driving Distance, Wikipedia Major US Airports)
- Biodiversity – Number of species deemed “present or probably present.” (Source: NPS Species List)
Overall rankings were determined by each park’s average ranking across all factors. Further details are available in the report’s methodology section.
About Travel Lemming
Travel Lemming is an online travel guide with more than 10 million annual readers. It is known for highlighting emerging and lesser-known destinations, and for the authentic guides produced by its team of dozens of local and expert travel creators.
DHR administers easement over Civil War battlefield land near City of Harrisonburg
The Department of Historic Resources (DHR) has executed and recorded a perpetual historic preservation easement over the Edwards Tract, a property situated on the site where the Battle of Port Republic in the American Civil War (1861-1865) took place. The easement protects approximately 107 acres of historically significant open-space land. The Edwards Tract is located southeast of the City of Harrisonburg, in a rural agricultural area in Rockingham County known as Port Republic.
On June 9, 1862, Confederate troops under Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson engaged with Federal forces east of the village of Port Republic. The battle largely occurred on a 70-foot-high ridge, known locally as “The Coaling,” which featured a clearing at the top from a charcoaling operation. The Coaling encompassed much of what today comprises the Edwards Tract. While Union artillery units at the top of the ridge initially dominated the battlefield, Jackson, who was concerned about the possibility of more Federal troops arriving on site, launched a haphazard attack against the Union forces. The majority of Jackson’s brigade, including the Louisiana Tigers, moved through the woods west of the Edwards Tract to fight the Union position at The Coaling. After a series of attacks from both sides, troops under Gen. Richard S. Ewell arrived to help the Confederates capture The Coaling and win the battle. The Confederate victory at Port Republic resulted in the withdrawal of Federal troops back down the Shenandoah Valley and allowed Jackson to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains to join troops led by Gen. Robert E. Lee near Richmond.
The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation (SVBF) acquired the Edwards Tract in 2022 using grants from the American Battlefield Protection Program, the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund, and the Virginia Land Conservation Fund. The SVBF conveyed an easement on the property to the Virginia Board of Historic Resources (VBHR) to fulfill grant requirements.
The densely forested terrain of the Edwards Tract is bisected by Ore Bank Road (State Route 708). The property fronts an unnamed intermittent stream along its western boundary for more than 3,700 feet. This stream drains to the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Virginia Department of Forestry considers approximately 49 percent of the Edwards Tract a high priority for forestland conservation in the state. More than 50 acres of the property have an “outstanding” rating in ecological integrity value in the Virginia Natural Landscapes Assessment. A portion of the property also lies within the Deep Run-Madison Run Pond Complex Conservation Site as designated by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
SVBF intends to install pedestrian trails and interpretative signs on the property to educate the public about the Battle of Port Republic. The Edwards Tract adjoins other properties owned by SVBF that are associated with the battle, and together they create a contiguous corridor of 327 acres of conserved historic landscape.
As of 2023, DHR has placed under easement more than 75,000 acres of land. DHR easements are held by the VBHR, and DHR staff monitor the eased lands. The VBHR currently holds easements on approximately 49,000 acres of battlefields in Virginia.
A pandemic experiment in universal free school meals gains traction in the states
Every public school kid in the United States was eligible for free school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of family income, thanks to the federal government.
While that’s now ended, a growing number of states across the country are enacting universal school meal laws to bolster child food security and academic equity. With little prospect of action soon in Congress, the moves by states show an appetite for free school meals for all developing beyond Washington.
Nine states have passed a temporary or permanent universal school meal policy in the past year. Another 23 have seen legislation introduced during the past three years, according to recent data from the Food Research and Action Center.
”As a former teacher, I know that providing free breakfast and lunch for our students is one of the best investments we can make to lower costs, support Minnesota’s working families, and care for our young learners and the future of our state,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, said when signing his state’s universal school meals bill on March 17.
“When we feed our children, we’re feeding our future,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, when she signed her state’s policy into law on March 28.
How it works
The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program authorize the Department of Agriculture to subsidize school meals for low-income students. Schools are reimbursed for meals that meet federal nutrition standards and incorporate U.S.-grown foods.
The programs accounted for $18 billion in annual expenditures in 2019, serving roughly 30 million students at lunch and 16 million at breakfast.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government enacted a policy that ensured access to school meals for all public school students, which teachers and families say supported kids’ well-being during the health crisis.
School meals in Virginia
While Virginia has not passed legislation providing universal school meals, the state’s two-year budget, signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in June 2022, includes funding for local school divisions to cover the cost of breakfast and lunch for students eligible for reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. No Kid Hungry Virginia estimates the provision will help roughly 64,500 additional Virginia students access free meals.
Yet the program was sunsetted in 2022, given objections to its roughly $29 billion estimated annual price tag and a desire among conservative members of Congress to “go back to normal.”
“There are pieces to this program that are badly damaged,” said Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You’re not solving anything by making it a universal program.”
Under current federal law, only students with families who have incomes 185% or more below the poverty line are eligible for entirely free school meals. That would be a family of four that makes roughly $36,000 or less.
Families with income between 130% and 185% below the poverty line pay a reduced price for meals. Students whose families have income above 130% of the poverty line must pay full price.
Policy experts say that despite growing interest in some states, federal universal school meals legislation would be a non-starter in the current Congress, where Republicans in the House majority aim to reduce federal spending.
States led by Republicans might be less eager to move ahead as well, with bills in those states stalled in committee or failing to pass by slim margins. Costs for the program range from $30 million to $40 million annually in states like Maine to $400 million over two years in Minnesota.
Of the nine states that have passed universal school meals, all have Democratic majorities in both chambers of state legislatures and control the governor’s office.
The last legislation introduced at the federal level was the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The bill failed to make it out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.
“I certainly don’t have a whole lot of hope with Republican control of the House that they’ll do much, in those terms,” said Marcus Weaver-Hightower, professor of educational foundations at Virginia Tech.
Still, there is optimism about universal school meals over the long term at the federal level after the trial run during the pandemic.
“The resistance isn’t as loud as it might seem,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and advocate for universal school meals. “I know it’s going to be able to move with urgency because the community outside of the Capitol bubble is moving with urgency, talking about this more and more.”
An experiment in the lockdown
As communities locked down in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy weathered mass layoffs, the Department of Agriculture authorized the provision of free school meal waivers for all students and raised the per-meal reimbursement rate.
The program grew to support roughly 50 million students during the health crisis. Food-insecure households with children decreased by 2.3 percentage points between 2020 and 2021, according to the USDA.
“It was kind of a natural experiment,” Weaver-Hightower said. “Everybody was suddenly getting them for free.”
Jeanne Reilly, the director of school nutrition at Windham Raymond Schools in Maine, recalled that when schools were closed, school nutrition teams got creative. Lunch staff was meeting parents in parking lots to distribute meals.
Yet, as vaccines proliferated at the end of 2021 and students returned to school, the federal universal meals program hit turbulence.
Conservative members of Congress, including Kentucky Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, refused to extend the universal school meal policy as part of the omnibus spending bill passed in March 2022.
The bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, passed by Congress in June 2022, allowed some states to extend their free meal programs and provided additional money for reimbursements. Yet school nutritionists say the effects of sunsetting the waivers are lingering.
Cohen said that experts are now starting to hear about the return of school meal debt, which can force schools to forgo educational expenses in order to pay the USDA for delinquent meal costs. A recent School Nutrition Association survey found that 847 school districts have racked up more than $19 million in debt from unpaid lunches.
School participation in meal programs also dropped to 88% in fall 2022, compared to 94% in March 2022, according to a study from the Department of Education.
States take action
Five states have passed laws that will provide free universal school meals in the 2023-24 school year and beyond, including Minnesota, New Mexico, Maine, California, and Colorado.
Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are providing universal school meals for the 2022-23 school year through a combination of federal and state funds. Nevada is providing universal school meals through the 2023-24 school year.
Twenty-three other states have seen universal school meals legislation introduced in the past three years, including Arizona, Louisiana, Montana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a professor of nutrition and leader of the Arizona State Food Policy and Environmental Research Group, said offering free school meals reduces the social stigma for low-income students, increasing participation and nutritional benefits for those who need it most.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the Jean Mayer Professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, cited a Journal of the American Medical Association study that found school meals are among the most nutritious meals students eat anywhere.
Other studies have shown that universal school meals produce positive overall effects on school attendance and academic performance across grades.
Tlaib says she benefited firsthand from participating in the National School Lunch Program when she was a child growing up with 13 siblings, an immigrant father who worked the night shift at Ford Motor Company, and a mother who was still learning English.
“As our family grew larger, I’ll tell you that I don’t think my family would have ever been able to provide us food for lunch,” Tlaib said. “When you have a parent tell me that’s the only place their child eats twice a day, this is so incredibly important.”
Others say that the policy would be a waste of taxpayer dollars and push the school lunch program further from its original purpose.
“Free and reduced-price school meals are for those who need the assistance,” said Republican Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who declined to extend universal school meal waivers in a stopgap spending bill in September, in a statement to States Newsroom. “Universal school meals isn’t about increasing access for hungry children — it’s about taxpayers subsidizing meals for those who do not need it.”
Butcher of the Heritage Foundation said the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs are on the high-priority list for the government watchdog Government Accountability Office, accounting for over $1 billion in untracked spending as food waste grows in school lunchrooms.
Baylen Linnekin, a food policy analyst for the libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, said that the nutritional quality of the meals has improved “slightly” since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
But he said two-thirds of the costs of the program go to overhead expenses, and with the variety of diets and allergies emerging, he said there is “no way” one school meal program can account for the needs of all children.
Origins of free school meals
In the build-up to World War I and World War II, a significant number of men who signed up for military service were disqualified due to nutritional deficiencies. This, combined with the economic pressures of the Great Depression, fueled the development of federally subsidized meal programs.
President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, formally enshrining the National School Lunch Program.
“The preamble is that it has a military function: the nation’s defense of the welfare of children and the protection of our agricultural system,” Weaver-Hightower said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans in Washington began denouncing inefficiencies in the meals program and pushing policies that dropped participation by millions of children.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the idea of nutritious school meals for all children gained steam, and Congress ultimately passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010.
The legislation enacted more rigorous nutrition standards to combat the rise of childhood obesity while boosting federal meal reimbursement rates. It also created the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, which allowed schools with more than 40% of students in means-tested federal nutrition programs to offer free meals to all students.
While the CEP has improved outcomes for students in low-income areas, nutrition experts say the provision has not eliminated child food insecurity.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are a lot of families that are not eligible for free school meals that are struggling,” said Juliana Cohen, director of the Center for Health Inclusion, Research and Practice at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
Some things state, and localities can do
While Congress may not act on universal school meals, policy minds said there are numerous alternatives for state and local governments to improve student food access.
Cohen said Arizona just got rid of its reduced-price tier for school meals in 2022, folding it into the free lunch tier.
Mozaffarian said he believes the best return on investment at the federal level is by expanding the Community Eligibility Provision so public schools can provide free meals to all students if they have 25% or more of their students on means-tested nutrition assistance.
He added that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed this change earlier this year.
Mozaffarian also suggested increasing the reimbursement rate for low-income schools, as well as improving federal school lunch nutrition standards and investing in scratch kitchens, where chefs make food from fresh ingredients, at low-income schools.
Butcher suggested using the money for universal school meals to create education savings accounts, which allow parents to “design” their child’s educational experience.
Reilly noted that she hopes to see federal universal school meal legislation because “everyone needs it.”
“I do think it’s feasible in the next five or 10 years federally,” Mozaffarian said.
Tlaib said that we as a society have a “moral obligation” to ensure students do not worry about where their next meal comes from.
“Something like this — something that our country can afford — we should do it,” Tlaib said. “There should be no hesitation.”
by Adam Goldstein, Virginia Mercury
Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.
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