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After two years, free school meals for all is over. What does that mean for students and their families?

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  • For more than two years, free school meals were universally available to every student in North Carolina's public schools. Now that this benefit has ended, what is the impact on students and families in North Carolina? #nced @nokidhungryNC @carolina_hunger @ncschoolmeals
  • “We are already seeing a decrease in about 300 school lunches served per day as compared with what we served during COVID,” said @John_ShepardNC, principal of North Henderson High School.
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For more than two years, all public school students across the nation have been able to access healthy school meals at no cost to them, ensuring every child has the opportunity to engage in learning without the distraction of hunger.

But beginning with the 2022-23 school year, the federally subsidized program started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to provide a stable food safety net for all public school children has come to an end. Free school meals are still available to those who meet income requirements; however, students coming from households earning just above income thresholds to qualify must pay for school breakfast and lunch at full price.

The result? Far fewer meals are being served in school cafeterias to students, and many leaders are worried. 

“We are already seeing a decrease in about 300 school lunches served per day as compared with what we served during COVID,” said Dr. John Shepard, principal of North Henderson High School. “That’s gut wrenching to me, because that’s 300 kids that normally would be eating, but aren’t.”

There are many reasons that could explain why those 300 fewer meals are being served, and Shepard believes a lot it has to do with access. Roughly 60% of his student population qualifies for free- and reduced-priced meals. But the application a family must fill out in order to qualify is cumbersome and challenging for parents, he says, and often requires information that families are reluctant to share.

And then, said Shepard, there are the “bubble kids.”

“That’s where the biggest impact is,” said Shepard. “If you’re a dollar over the income threshold qualification – you can’t qualify. And those kids are hurting more than in recent times.”

Shepard says skyrocketing inflation and the cost of food continues to have an enormous impact on the families in his community. And the free- and reduced-price meal program’s qualification criteria don’t take those factors into account – the application only considers the size of your household and the earnings your family brings in. 

“If you’re a family with a lot of medical bills, student loan debt, or just simply don’t earn wages that are keeping pace with inflation, and yet you don’t qualify [for free- and reduced-priced meals] – then you’re making really hard choices about how to feed your family,” said Shepard.

The impact of universal access to healthy school meals

When COVID-19 required the closure of school buildings in March 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented federal waivers that provided flexibility to school districts so that they were able to fully fund and distribute healthy school breakfasts and lunches to students at no cost to them.

As the health and economic effects of the pandemic persisted over the last two-plus years, the federal government continued to fully subsidize school meals through the end of summer 2022. As students began to return to school buildings, free school meals for every child meant students could come to school ready to learn without having to worry about how they would eat. And, importantly, no paperwork was required for families in order to access these meals – they were made available to all regardless of income or household size.

“The impact of universal access to healthy school meals has been enormous,” said Andrew Harrell, program and communication manager for No Kid Hungry NC and the Carolina Hunger Initiative. “When you make these healthy meals available for all, it reduces stigma and creates a powerful equity component for schools.”

In North Carolina, approximately 60% of the student population statewide qualified for free- and reduced-price meals before the pandemic, Harrell said. Food insecurity is a significant issue for our state. North Carolina is the 15th hungriest state in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

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

“How do you explain to a second grader that some kids get free meals at school, and some don’t?” said Harrell. “Eliminating that stigma is essential to ensuring that all students can feel comfortable accessing meals and then, in turn, can be able to learn.”

Families with younger children who have never had to apply for free- and reduced-price meals are being surprised by this change. Many school districts have worked hard to get the message out to families this past summer that universal access to school meals was ending, so that they could get their applications in early and avoid having to rack up school meal charges at the start of the school year or forgo those meals entirely.

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

They had a good response rate with that approach, which has helped to alleviate the administrative burden that typically comes with processing free- and reduced-price meal applications at the start of the school year. That has been especially important as the district – and state – continues to grapple with finding enough people to staff schools. 

But ultimately, Maynard would really like to see universal access to no-cost healthy school meals reinstated. 

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

Fruit cups in Perquimans County Schools. Courtesy of Perquimans County School Nutrition Department

The cost of child hunger

Only a couple of weeks into the school year, some school districts are already seeing significant meal debts rack up, said Lynn Harvey, director of school nutrition services at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Local school districts each have their own policies on how they allow students to “charge” school breakfasts and lunches. If a student has an electronic school meal account that is not pre-loaded with funds, they can still receive a meal and charge it to their account in many districts, resulting in a negative balance. Some districts set an upper limit on how much students can charge, while others do not. As a result, many districts have significant school meal debts because, ultimately, no one wants to see a child go hungry.

Union County Public Schools already had $62,773 in student meal debt after just nine days of school. That’s a significant figure,” Harvey said. “And in Asheboro City Schools, their school meal debt after the first week of school this year was 50% higher as compared with the first week of school in 2019-20.”

She said her office will be tracking school meal debt on a quarterly basis and submitting those figures to state legislative leaders in an effort to work closely with them on tackling the issue of child hunger.

Harvey said she is also very concerned about students who, as Shepard mentioned, are “on the bubble.”

“I think we’ve done a really good job helping parents understand they must complete their applications for free- and reduced-price meal benefits, and parents are getting it done,” said Harvey. “But we have too many households who no longer qualify for meal benefits.”

If universal access to school meals is an option the federal government does not reinstate, there are other options on the table that could help address the nutritional needs of those households on the bubble that are unable to qualify for meal benefits – and are hurting.

“We are seven years past due for reauthorization of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” said Harvey.

A version of the reauthorization of this legislation has passed the U.S. House and is sitting with the Senate Agriculture Committee, and there is some hope that it could be passed into law soon. The legislation is important for many reasons, but in particular because it would expand the eligibility criteria for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which enables high-poverty schools and districts to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students.

The reauthorization would be a step in the right direction to addressing child hunger, said Harvey, who also applauded the North Carolina General Assembly’s 11th hour action this past summer to extend free lunch to those who qualify for reduced-price lunch for the 2022-23 school year. Legislative leaders passed the measure, contained in the state budget, upon learning that a federal proposal to subsidize that cost did not come to pass, Harvey said.

“Our mantra [at NC DPI]  is we are about nourishing students’ bodies, minds and souls,” said Harvey. “Proper nutrition is coupled with academic success and social and emotional well being; feeding students is an instructional intervention, just like when we provide digital devices or transportation to school.”

“And when you are six years old and suddenly you don’t have access to food, you are traumatized,” she continued. “Unfortunately, children don’t forget those episodes when they are made to feel devalued in any way. Feeding children isn’t just about their caloric needs – it’s about the humanity of our children, and that children deserve equal access to healthy meals.”

The cafeteria at Chinquapin Elementary school. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Student academic success starts with full bellies

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

“For the past two years, we were able to remove a barrier to learning by providing universal access to healthy school meals,” he said, “and that’s what we do in education – we remove barriers so that kids can learn.”

Mitchell said he’s already seeing in his classroom hungry children who don’t qualify for free-and-reduced priced meals, but whose families also can’t afford the skyrocketing prices of food, rent, and other costs associated with daily living.

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

Mitchell now keeps a supply of food on hand in his classroom for students who are hungry. At his current school, that extra food is funded by multiple sources: his own money, community partners, and parents. But prior to the pandemic when he was at his last school, which was located in a higher poverty area, Mitchell bought nearly all of the food he kept on hand with his own earnings.

As Mitchell makes sure each week his classroom has emergency food supplies on hand, sometimes opening his own wallet to make that happen, he must also contend with the reality that his family is on that bubble, too.

“My wife used to be a teacher, but she works three part-time jobs now so she can have more flexibility to be with our preschooler and first grader,” he said. “And, of course, I’m a teacher. Our income is just barely too high to qualify for meal benefits – but the reality is that we absolutely could use them.”

Mitchell said he’s seen a lot of families in situations similar to his, and he’s sure that when these families are putting together their children’s lunch boxes each morning, they are just hoping they 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 universal access to free lunch and breakfast,” said Mitchell. “For all 1.5 million kids in North Carolina. Let’s give them that option to be able to have a stomach that is full so that they can focus on school – and not have to worry about when they get their next meal.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story indicated that the N.C. General Assembly extended free meals to those who qualify for reduced-price meals for the 2022-23 school year. The measure pertained to lunch only; in 2011, the state legislature eliminated the reduced-price breakfast copay, making those whose household income qualifies them for reduced-price breakfast eligible for free breakfast.

Lindsay Wagner

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