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‘Remember when kids are fed, everybody wins.’ More from NC Child Hunger Leaders conference

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Kayla Holland, food and nutrition program manager at the Center for Black Health and Equity, led a packed room in a guided visualization. She asked attendees of the NC Child Hunger Leaders Conference to close their eyes and put both feet firmly on the ground. 

“Take yourself back to school and remember one of those athletic or academic successes you had. Do you remember how it felt? Now, remember if you were hungry when you did it.”

This year’s conference theme, “You are the Champions,” had attendees in tracksuits, adorning medals, and holding the Olympic torch, all in the name of feeding students. The day featured campaigns from successful school districts on increased involvement in school breakfast, innovative ways to get faculty buy-in, a new approach to summer meals, and more.

Geoff Coltrane, senior education advisor to Gov. Roy Cooper, started the day with the state of child hunger in North Carolina.

“A hungry child cannot learn, and nearly one in six children in North Carolina live in households without consistent access to food. And nearly 60% of our public school students across the state rely on free and reduced price meals to help make sure that they’re meeting their nutritional needs.”

Geoff Coltrane, senior education advisor to Gov. Cooper

Last October, Gov. Cooper allocated federal discretionary funding to expand school breakfast programs, and the Carolina Hunger Initiative and North Carolina Alliance for Health have been administering these funds through a competitive grant program.

On Tuesday, Gov. Cooper announced this partnership has awarded $1.3 million in grants to 42 school districts and charter schools, equating to 258 schools and around 51,000 students.

These school districts and charter schools are participating in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program to make school meals available to all students. 

School districts and charter schools that received school breakfast grants. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Leaders from Johnston County Public Schools took the stage to share their creative strategies to increase participation in their breakfast program. Among other strategies, the district offers breakfast carts at school entry ways for students getting off the bus and rolls the cart to younger students, easing the apprehension of entering the lunch room. Watch the video below to learn more from Johnston County Public Schools.

School Meals for All NC, a coalition with the goal of ensuring no-cost school meals available to all students, reported out their accomplishments this past year and brought out student ambassadors from Bertie County Schools

School Meals for All NC first year accomplishments. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Students Amina Smallwood and Amiya Smith of Bertie County Public Schools took the stage to talk about their involvement in School Meals for All NC and how education leaders could bring the ambassador program to their local schools.

School Meals for All NC student ambassadors Amina Smallwood and Amiya Smith from Bertie County Schools. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Smallwood and Smith had the crowd cheering as they described visiting one of their district’s elementary school cafeterias to gain a hands-on experience of lunch operations. The ambassadors assisted nutrition personnel in assembling lunch trays and interacted with the students as they ate lunch. They will be creating a week-long lunch menu to be implemented in Bertie County Schools as part of their program. 

Bertie County School Meals for All NC student ambassadors. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Summer meals took center stage in the afternoon, as the audience learned about congregate meals, non-congregate meals, and SUN Bucks, the newest federally funded program in North Carolina. Also known as summer EBT, SUN Bucks will begin the summer of 2024 and families will receive $120 per eligible child for the summer period.

In the summer of 2023, 3,908,526 total meals were served at 2,492 sites. Fifty sites served non-congregate meals, and sites on average served meals for 22 days during the summer.

NC Child Hunger Leaders conference. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

The Carolina Hunger Initiative’s goal is to increase access to healthy meals year-round for North Carolinians. This annual conference brings together nonprofit, school district, and government leaders to continue the mission. For a full recap of the day’s events, stay tuned here.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.