Child nutrition expert weighs in on impact free lunches for all could have

State lawmakers are hoping to continue providing free meals for students, regardless of how much their caregivers make.
Published: May. 30, 2022 at 2:56 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students across the country were provided the opportunity to receive free meals – but that program is set to end in June. Now, state lawmakers are hoping to continue providing free meals for students, regardless of how much their caregivers make.

Thousands of students in North Carolina rely on free school meals, and in New Hanover County, students in 28 of 43 schools are eligible for free lunches for all under the The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools with more than 40% of students eligible for free meals to provide them to all students, regardless of income levels.

For students in public schools, free meals provide access to nutritious foods to those who might not get that anywhere else, and the impacts of hunger are significant.

“If the students are not eating, then they’re not able to perform. The studies have shown that it causes stress and anxiety on the children, they don’t perform well in the classroom, they may have discipline problems. There’s all sorts of information that’s out there about that, but the kids, they need this meal. It’s important to their learning,” Child Nutrition Director for New Hanover County Schools Amy Stanley said.

One of the bills introduced in the House would require the state Department of Public Instruction to allocate enough money to all schools to provide free lunches to all students who need it.

With rising inflation and stagnant wages, that’s not always as simple as it sounds. Right now, a single parent with one child has to make less than $23,803, that’s about $11.44 an hour for someone working 40 hours a week. The cost of housing alone in New Hanover County and southeastern North Carolina as a whole is on the rise, and low wages along with a shortage of housing options, especially affordable options, make it difficult for someone making such a low wage to live in the region.

For reference, in New Hanover County, anyone paying more than 30% of their annual income on housing is considered cost-burdened. For someone making $23,803 a year, they’d have to spend less than $600 a month on housing to meet that criteria. And someone making $20 an hour would need to spend $1,040 or less of their income to have affordable housing, a task that is increasingly difficult.

So even those making more than the threshold to qualify for free meals can still struggle to afford basic essentials, like food. When people have to choose between housing costs, gas prices or other transportation to get to and from jobs, healthy meal options might suffer.

Nutrition experts say school meals could be the only healthy food children receive, and expanding the eligibility for these meals would help fix that.

“It would be very important for the programs because you don’t have to worry about Free and Reduced applications, all students are on the same playing field. So it would alleviate a lot of stress on families to not have to worry about that application process,” Stanley said.

The idea of providing meals to students at no cost is not without opposition. Some of those who do not support free student meals often say it’s the parents’ responsibility to provide food for their children. Free meals are already provided to more than half of all schools in New Hanover County.

“The Community Eligibility Program is a program that we offer through USDA. And it looks at areas of eligibility where they don’t have to use a free and reduced application. So what we’re doing is based off of identify factors through the state, and then the schools — we actually have 28 schools that are under the CEP Community Eligibility Provision,” Stanley said.

That means anyone who requests a no-cost meal is provided one.

“During the school year, everyone can participate as well. If you’re at one of the Community Eligibility schools, then all of those kids eat at no cost. If you’re not at a school that uses CEP then you would fill out a free and reduced application that will be available July 1,” Stanley said.

But if the General Assembly was to pass a bill providing these meals to all students, regardless of familial income level, she says the effects would be significant.

“It would be a huge benefit because that’s that much money that a family, especially in today time with financial concerns, you know — that’s one less worry that a family would have to have is paying for lunches or breakfast meals,” she said.

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