August 15, 2023

Katie Herndon Dawkins, North Carolina Alliance For Health Communications Manager

Right now, families in North Carolina are in full back-to-school mode. In some districts, students are reaping the benefits of no-cost school meals thanks to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal program that provides no-cost school meals in low-income schools or districts. But not all North Carolina families are seeing these benefits. In schools and districts that are not able to participate in CEP, families need to complete meal applications to determine if they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals or if they will pay full price. It’s confusing that there are some schools and districts that offer no-cost school meals thanks to CEP and others that have a three-tiered payment structure for school meals based on family income. 

But wait, it gets even more confusing! The NC General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that covers the reduced-price breakfast copays, meaning that students who qualify for reduced-priced meals receive breakfast for free. This is great! They also funded the reduced-price lunch copay in the 2022-2023 school year, which meant that last year families who qualified for reduced-price meals were able to receive lunch at no cost. Again, that was wonderful, EXCEPT it wasn’t funded as a recurring item in the budget. And since there was no new budget as of July 1, 2023, the funding for reduced-price lunch copays expired on June 30, 2023, at the end of the fiscal year. So (now stay with me), families who qualify for reduced-price meals and whose children do not attend schools participating in CEP will be able to receive breakfast at no cost but will have to pay the reduced-price copay for lunch. Can you imagine being a school or school district that has to communicate that to families on top of convincing them to fill out and return the meal applications, buy school supplies, adhere to the dress code, fill out all the other forms, etc.? 

If you are a family with a child in a public school in North Carolina, we encourage you to learn about school nutrition services offered at your school. Find out if your school or district is participating in the Community Eligibility Provision. If they are, great! Encourage your children to eat school meals. Participation is essential. Take my word for it. If your school or district is not participating in CEP, make sure you complete the meal application and know what the cost of school meals will be for your family. If you think this is all absolutely the craziest thing you’ve ever heard and agree that we should just feed the kids, join School Meals for All NC and help us ensure that all children attending public schools in North Carolina – no matter their zip code – can benefit from school meals at no cost to families. 

This confusion is completely unnecessary. No child, no matter where they live, should be held back by hunger. School meals for all can help cut the confusion by providing no-cost meals to every student in every public school in North Carolina. 

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