PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. (WDVM) — Adelle Settle founded Settle the Debt to pay off student lunch debt without a catch. Around the time Settle’s nonprofit was getting off the ground, Danica Roem was elected.
“Danica was kind enough to reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? We should, like, work on something together,’” Settle remembered. “And the rest was basically history.”
In January, the Virginia House of Delegates passed two bills Roem and Settle worked on together to prevent student lunch debt from happening and to reform the ways unpaid lunches are settled.
House Bill 2013 prevents school boards from suing families for unpaid lunch debt. “School meal debt, number one, shouldn’t exist, but number two, if it does it’s a cry for help,” Roem said. “It should be something that’s dealt with internally inside the school system, not something that is brought up in front of the court of law.”
Settle says she’s heard from families who say their school districts used their kids “as tools” to collect. “They would, you know, tell kids that they can’t participate in end of the year field days, or they can’t go on a field trip, or they can’t go to prom, or they might not be able to walk at graduation because they have school meal debt.” Many of those parents had to make the hard choice between paying a utility bill and covering unpaid lunches.
House Bill 2135 expands participation in a federal after-school program that provides meals, snacks, and programming to low-income students.
“The more money I’m able to raise and put into our school systems to make sure that kids are not being stigmatized and that their lunch bills just go away, people react really positively to that,” Settle said. “And then they also see the value in the legislation that Delegate Roem has put forward.”
Student lunch debt isn’t a problem that’s isolated to Virginia. So, what should representatives do in their own states?
“Oh, read my bills and then pass them themselves,” Roem said.
“Identically. Literally. Copy them and introduce them and pass them. That’s all you have to do. We’ve set up a model. Follow it,” Settle added.
22 of Roem’s bills have passed since she took office in 2018. Over a third is school meal legislation.
In 2019, Roem cosigned a bill that required school districts to prominently advertise applications for free and reduced lunches on their websites (a better alternative to sending paper applications home with students).
Even more passed in 2020, including her bill to allow school boards to receive donations to cover unpaid lunches and a bill that requires eligible schools to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that pays for school meals.