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Perspective | School meal debt has no place in North Carolina

The fact that children are accruing school meal debt in our state is disheartening. This is especially alarming because the copays for reduced-price meals are covered by the state this year. Thus, school meal debt is accruing from families who earn too much to qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.

Rising inflation and the higher cost of school meals make paying for breakfast and lunch increasingly difficult for many families. Around 60% of North Carolina children qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But there is a “missing middle;” for example, a family of four who makes $51,339 a year may struggle to put food on the table but would not qualify for reduced-price meals. In fact, nearly 20% of children in North Carolina who don’t have enough to eat don’t qualify. 

Hungry kids can’t learn. Children who don’t have access to regular, nutritious meals are less able to focus, more likely to be sick, and more likely to engage in disruptive behavior.  

While the meal debt report sheds light on the issue of school meal debt in North Carolina, it doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, some districts don’t have meal debt, or have very low meal debt, because some or all of their schools are participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools to provide meals to all students at no cost. No cost, no school meal debt.

Counties like Carteret, where I live, are currently eligible for CEP due to disaster SNAP benefits, and all elementary and middle schools are participating. These benefits will end at the end of this school year, and Carteret County will lose CEP eligibility. 

Sadly, we are not the only district that will lose eligibility. Without CEP, students will have to apply for free or reduced-priced meals and pay for meals. As we have heard time and time again, students will choose hunger over shame. The meal debt will increase, and students with unpaid balances will be served alternative meals, or worse, no meal at all. These shouldn’t be children’s problems — they should be focused on excelling in the classroom and being kids. North Carolina has the resources to make this happen. Providing school meals for all students in public schools at no cost to their families is the solution. 

Children across the state are struggling with hunger. Together we can build strong, resilient communities, wipe out school meal debt, and reduce child hunger by making school meals available to all students at no cost to their families. It is time for North Carolina to take the lead on addressing child hunger. Dollar for dollar, it is one of the best investments we can make in their success, and we have the resources. They are the future of North Carolina. Let’s just feed the kids.

Alecia Sanders

Alecia Sanders holds a master’s in public health and a bachelor’s in public health studies from East Carolina University. Sanders’s career has been spent in health policy and local health departments, focusing on nutrition, physical activity, and tobacco cessation.