HERNDON, Va. (DC News Now) — A Northern Virginia teacher is working with others to solve a problem he believes is overlooked and hasn’t gotten enough attention since the early days of the pandemic.

Gabe Segal, who teaches science and special education to students at Herndon Middle School in Fairfax County, told DC News Now that he is working collaboratively with colleagues, organizations and restaurants to pay off the roughly $1,200 in student meals debt at the school.

His reasoning is that families, including those who have children at the Title I school, are still struggling financially, and paying for meals at schools is just one additional expense that, for some, may be difficult to afford.

“I love supporting students who are in need,” Segal said in an interview with DC News Now. “I’m going to stand up for them. I’m not going to forget about them.”

Segal said his relationships with his students and their families helped him realize school meals debt is a problem that may be overlooked.

“People still think that COVID is over,” he said. “But a lot of our families in this community still really need help.”

Though Segal is working to tackle the problem at Herndon Middle School, that debt represents just a fraction of the problem in Virginia.

“We know that school meals are a lifeline for families who are experiencing food insecurity,” said Sarah Steely, the director of No Kid Hungry Virginia, who says financial difficulties are partially responsible for remaining school meals debt — even though she applauded the commonwealth’s efforts.

Steely said that after COVID-era federal waivers expired, Virginia lawmakers approved $8.2 million as part of the budget signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in July of 2022 that allows more students to qualify for free meals. She estimates 64,500 more students qualify for free breakfast and lunch due to the funding, as opposed to the partially reduced rates they would have paid.

“I think that’s a great first step,” she said, “and there’s potentially an opportunity to do more.”

Steely said in Virginia, the focus should remain on expanding federal programs and a continuing commitment to spend available state funds. She also praised Segal’s efforts as a sign that people here are committed to helping.

“It’s a tough time but [I’m] really grateful for folks like this teacher for getting us through,” she said.

Segal said he has done this once before — back in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. But, because of the impacts of inflation, he felt like he needed to help again.

“I just personally believe that families shouldn’t have to worry about how much money they owe a school system,” he said.