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Heading into 2024, an update on nutrition, child hunger, and access to school meals

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Upcoming N.C. Child Hunger Leaders Conference

The Carolina Hunger Initiative is hosting the N.C. Child Hunger Leaders Conference on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Friday Conference Center in Chapel Hill.

Inspired by the summer Olympics coming up in Paris in 2024, the theme is, “YOU are the CHAMPIONS!” The website says, “In that spirit, we will be celebrating the champions across North Carolina who go the extra mile to make sure kids have access to healthy food.”

Here is the landing page for the conference, and here is the link to register.

Who should attend?

Anyone interested in nutrition, fighting hunger, education, or making sure kids have access to healthy food is invited. Previous conference attendees have included everyone from nutrition professionals, to principals and teachers, to food banks, to faith-based organizations, to elected officials, to advocates and community leaders. Attendees will have a chance to connect with other child hunger leaders from across the state and to learn about new strategies and success stories.

Why attend?

All kids need healthy food to thrive. In North Carolina, one in six children face hunger. More than 60% of public school students in North Carolina qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. That’s about 900,000 kids. Increasing access to healthy food for kids has been linked to better academic performance and better social-emotional outcomes.

Join the torch relay

Whether you are attending or not, you are invited to submit a simple, 10-second video as part of the torch relay for the conference. They are due on Friday, Feb. 9, at 11:59 p.m. Here is more information on how to participate.

Also register for virtual nutrition classes

Register for virtual nutrition education lessons provided by the Carolina Hunger Initiative. Lessons are from 6:30-7:30pm on Tuesday, Jan. 30 through Tuesday, Feb. 27. Topics covered in class range from building a nutritious plate to saving money at the grocery store. 

Leadership at N.C. DPI

Jeremy Gibbs, the former director of regional support in Western North Carolina, is now the deputy state superintendent of district and school support services for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which includes school nutrition. Lynn Harvey remains the senior director of the Office of School Nutrition.

School Meals for All NC

School Meals for All N.C. is a coalition that believes “no child should go hungry and every child in every public school in North Carolina should have access to breakfast and lunch at school at no cost to their families.”

If you care about school meals for all, here are some ways you can get involved.

Here is the website.

This webinar is called “School Meals 101.” Take a look to learn more about funding for school meals.

Here you can subscribe for email updates.

There is a coalition meeting held virtually the second Monday of each month. Here is information on how to attend. The meeting is open to the media.

You can sign on to the letter of support that indicates that you support the work of School Meals for All N.C. and share the belief that every child in every public school in North Carolina should have access to breakfast and lunch at school at no cost to their families. Here is the letter in Spanish.

Follow School Meals for All N.C. on Instagram.

Young adults ages 13-24 living in North Carolina may apply to be an ambassador. Ambassadors participate in policy and systems change training, utilize GIS and story mapping to tell stories of the impact of school meals, learn social media advocacy, and plan and attend local and state conferences and convenings, according to the website.

If you are 18 or older (or younger and have parental permission), live in North Carolina, and have an email account, you may sign up to be a champion. Champions will share their school meals story, support School Meals for All N.C. through community engagement opportunities, and be a vocal supporter of School Meal for All N.C.’s mission to ensure that every child in every public school in N.C. has access to breakfast and lunch at school at no cost to their families, according to the website.

Courtesy of School Meals for All NC

EdNC gets a lot of questions about the community eligibility provision (CEP). For more information on CEP, check out this 2021 brief by the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) and the North Carolina Alliance for Health.

N.C. DPI recognizes summer nutrition programs

On Dec. 29, 2023, the N.C. DPI recognized seven summer nutrition programs for their efforts in going above and beyond to provide nutritious meals and educational enrichment to kids and teens when school is out, according to this press release.

N.C. Summer Nutrition Champion Awards recognize sponsors who are implementing innovative and creative practices to expand their summer nutrition programs.

Shout out to the following:

  • The Boys & Girls Club of the Coastal Plain won the Rising Star Award.
  • The Boys & Girls Club of Wake County, Cumberland County Schools, and TCK Providence, Inc. won the Going the Distance Innovation Award.
  • Franklin County Schools and Gaston County Schools won the Farm to Summer Award.
  • The Turnip the Beet Award, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), recognizes outstanding summer nutrition program sponsors who work hard to offer high quality meals that are appetizing, appealing, and nutritious. Beaufort County Schools won this award.

“Summer Nutrition Programs provide North Carolina’s students with the fuel they need for continued growth, development and learning even while school is out for the summer,” said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt. “The importance of these programs cannot be overstated, and I am so proud of these awardees for going the extra mile to nourish and support North Carolina’s children. They have played a pivotal role in supporting students’ bodies and minds.”

USDA announces new summer benefit for children

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently announced that 35 states, all five U.S. territories, and four Tribes plan to be the first to launch the new, permanent summer grocery benefits program for children — known as Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) — in summer 2024, including North Carolina. 

The USDA estimates that, in total, the program will serve close to 21 million children, providing a total of nearly $2.5 billion in grocery benefits, according to this press release

Through this new program, states will provide families with $120 per eligible child for the summer to buy food at grocery stores, farmers markets, or other authorized retailers — similar to how SNAP benefits are used.

“Summer grocery benefits are becoming a reality for many communities across the nation and for tens of millions of children who will receive the nutrition they need to grow, learn, and thrive,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

Rigorous evaluations of a multi-year demonstration project showed that providing Summer EBT reduced child hunger and improved diet quality, notes the press release. Summer grocery benefits decreased the number of kids with very low food security by about one-third and supported healthier diets featuring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

New national survey of nutrition directors

In a new School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey report, virtually all respondents (99.3%) reported challenges with increasing costs, and 83.9% indicated costs are a significant challenge, according to this press release.

The survey was conducted between Oct. 24 and Nov. 10, 2023, and the response rate was 33% with 1,343 school meal program directors across the country participating. The southeast region had the second highest response rate.

Staff shortages was the second most prevalent challenge identified by the survey, reported by 90.5% of respondents. The survey also revealed persistent procurement problems in the K-12 market.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.