Free school meals for everyone in North Carolina are over

Free school meals for everyone in North Carolina are over

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  • For more than two years, free school meals have been available to everyone around the world in North Carolina public schools. Now that this benefit is over, what is its impact on students and families in North Carolina? MustafaHosny Oh God, Amen Lord

  • “We are already seeing a reduction in about 300 school lunches served per day compared to what we served during COVID,” said John_ShepardNC, Principal of North Henderson High School.

For more than two years, all public school students across the country have had access to healthy school meals at no cost to them, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to engage in learning without the distraction of hunger.

But starting from the 2022-23 school year, Federally supported program The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to provide a stable food safety net for all public school children and is over. Free school meals are still available to those who meet the income requirements; However, students coming from families who earn slightly above the income thresholds to qualify must pay the school’s breakfast and lunch fees at full price.

Results? Much less meals are served in school cafeterias for students, and many leaders are concerned.

Dr. John Shepherd, Director of North Henderson High School. “It hurts me, because 300 children usually eat, but they are not.”

There are many reasons why 300 fewer meals are served, and Shepherd thinks it has a lot to do with accessibility. Nearly 60% of its students are eligible for free and reduced price meals. But the application a family must fill out in order to qualify is onerous and difficult for parents, he says, and often requires information that families don’t want to share.

Then there are the Bubble Babies, said Shepherd.

“This is where the biggest impact is,” Shepherd said. “If you go over the minimum dollar income, you can’t qualify. And these kids are hurting more than they have been lately.”

Shepherd says hyperinflation and the cost of food still have a huge impact on families in his community. The eligibility criteria for the free and low price meal program do not take these factors into account – the application only considers the size of your family and the earnings your family earns.

“If you are a family member with a lot of medical bills, student loan debt, or simply not earning wages that keep pace with inflation, yet you do not qualify [for free- and reduced-priced meals] You make really hard decisions about how to feed your family,” Shepherd said.

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The effect of everyone getting healthy school meals

When COVID-19 required school building closures in March 2020, the USDA implemented federal waivers that provided flexibility for school districts so they could fund and distribute healthy school breakfasts and lunches to students at no cost to them. .

With the health and economic effects of the pandemic continuing over the past two years, the federal government continued to fully support school meals until the end of the summer of 2022. When students began returning to school buildings, free school meals for every child meant students could come to school ready to learn without Having to worry about the way they are going to eat. Most importantly, no worksheets were needed for families in order to access these meals – they were made available to everyone regardless of income or family size.

“The impact of universal access to healthy school meals has been enormous,” said Andrew Harrell, the company’s director of programs and communications. No baby hungry NC and the Carolina Hunger Initiative. “When you make these healthy meals available to everyone, it reduces stigma and creates a powerful element of equity for schools.”

In North Carolina, nearly 60% of students statewide were eligible for free and reduced-price meals before the pandemic, Harrell said. Food insecurity is an important issue for our country. North Carolina is 15 countries with the most hunger in the nationAccording to the US Department of Agriculture.

Now with the start of the 2022-23 school year, free school meals are no longer available to all students. Many parents struggle with the application process, while at the same time their children suffer from the stigma that can result from qualifying for free school meals.

“How do you explain to second graders that some kids get free meals at school, and some don’t?” Harel said. “Removing this stigma is essential to ensuring that all students feel comfortable getting meals and, in turn, can learn.”

Families with younger children who have never had to apply for free and reduced-price meals are surprised by this change. Many school districts worked hard to get the message out to families last summer that universal access to school meals was over, so they could get their orders in early and avoid having to increase school meal fees at the start of the school year or forgo those meals altogether.

“We started a campaign in July to encourage online applications for free and reduced-price meals so we can process them quickly,” said Beth Maynard, executive director of school nutrition for Cumberland County Schools.

They had a good response rate with this approach, which helped ease the administrative burden that usually comes with processing free and low-price meal orders at the start of the school year. This was especially important as the district — and the state — continue to struggle to find enough people to staff the schools.

But in the end, Maynard would really like to see the return of universal access to healthy free school meals.

“When you think about what we offer public education – free books, free laptops, free transportation – why not offer free meals while the children are in our care during the day?” She said.

Fruit cups in Berquins County schools. Courtesy of the Berquins County School District Nutrition Department

The cost of starving children

Just two weeks into the school year, some school districts have already seen significant meal debt build up, said Lynn Harvey, director of school feeding services for the North Carolina Department of Public Education.

Each local school district has its own policies on how to allow students to “charge” school breakfasts and lunches. If a student has an electronic school meal account that was not previously loaded with funds, they can still receive a meal and have it charged to their account in many regions, resulting in a negative balance. Some areas set an upper limit on how much students can earn, while others do not. As a result, many areas have large debts on school meals because, after all, no one wants to see a child go hungry.

“Union County Public Schools already has $62,773 in student meal debt after just nine days of school. That’s a significant number,” Harvey said. “At Asheboro City schools, school meal debt after the first week of school this year was 50% higher,” Harvey said. Compared to the first week of school in 2019-20.”

She said her office will track school meal debt on a quarterly basis and provide those numbers to state legislative leaders in an effort to work closely with them on addressing the issue of child hunger.

Harvey said she’s also very concerned about the students, as Shepherd puts it, “in the bubble.”

“I think we’ve done a really good job of helping parents understand that they have to complete their requests for free and low-price meal benefits, and parents get it done,” Harvey said. “But we have a lot of families who are no longer eligible for meal benefits.”

If universal access to school meals is an option the federal government hasn’t brought back, there are other options on the table that could help meet the nutritional needs of those families in the bubble who are unable to qualify for meal benefits — and get hurt.

It’s been seven years since the federal government’s reauthorization was due The Healthy and Hunger-Free Children Act of 2010Harvey said.

A version of this reauthorization of this legislation has been approved in the US House of Representatives and is sitting with the Senate Agriculture Committee, and there is some hope it could pass into law soon. The legislation is important for many reasons, but in particular because it would expand eligibility criteria for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which enables schools and extremely poor districts to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

Harvey said the reauthorization would be a step in the right direction to tackle child hunger, who also praised the North Carolina General Assembly’s 11th o’clock action last summer to provide free meals to those eligible for discounted meals for 2022-23. school year. Legislative leaders passed the measure, contained in the state budget, after learning that a federal proposal to support this cost had not passed.

“Our motto [at NC DPI] “Are we going to nourish students’ bodies, minds, and souls?” Harvey said. “Proper nutrition is associated with academic success and social and emotional well-being. Feeding students is an educational intervention, just as we provide digital devices or transportation to school.”

“When you’re six years old and all of a sudden you can’t reach food, you get a shock,” she continued. “Unfortunately, children do not forget those events when they feel undervalued in any way. Feeding children is not just about their caloric needs – it is about the humanity of our children, and that children deserve equal access to healthy meals.”

The cafeteria at Chinkwapen Primary School. Ruben Fovaria / EducationNC

A student’s academic success begins with full stomachs

Search It indicates that food insecurity in early childhood has a direct impact on academic achievement. And that’s something that’s become very clear over the past 12 years of teaching to Ryan Mitchell, the second grade teacher for the Henderson County Schools and North Carolina Teacher of the Year for the 2022 Western District.

He said, “Over the past two years, we have been able to remove the barrier to learning by providing universal access to healthy school meals, and that’s what we do in education — we remove barriers so that children can learn.”

Mitchell said he already sees in his class hungry children who are not eligible for free and reduced-price meals, but their families, too, cannot afford the high prices for food, rent and other costs associated with daily living.

“They are unfocused because they think about the food rather than the content of the lesson I am teaching,” he said.

Mitchell now keeps a supply of food in the classroom for hungry students. At his current school, this extra food is funded from multiple sources: his own money, his community partners, and their parents. But before the epidemic when he was at his last school, which was located in an area of ​​higher poverty, Mitchell bought nearly all the food he kept on hand from his own earnings.

As Mitchell makes sure every week that his classroom has emergency food supplies on hand, and occasionally opens his own purse to make it happen, he also has to contend with the fact that his family lives in that bubble as well.

“My wife used to be a teacher, but now she works three part-time jobs so she has more flexibility to be with our preschooler and first grader,” he said. “And of course I am a teacher. Our income is barely too high to qualify for meal benefits – but the truth is we can definitely use it.”

Mitchell said he’s seen plenty of families in situations similar to him, and he’s sure that when these families pack their kids’ lunch boxes each morning, they just hope they’ll have enough to get their kids through the day—but they know it might not be enough.

“I’d like to see us go back to all inclusive access to free lunch and breakfast,” Mitchell said. “For all the 1.5 million kids in North Carolina. Let’s give them that option to be able to have a full stomach so they can focus on school — and not have to worry about when they have their next meal.”

Lindsey Wagner

Lindsay Wagner is a contract reporter for EducationNC focusing on child nutrition.

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