September 6, 2023

Updated November 8, 2023

Katie Herndon Dawkins, North Carolina Alliance for Health Communications Manager

For what it’s worth (FWIW), we believe that school meals are one of the most essential parts of the school day and that every child in every public school in the state should be able to eat school meals at no cost. But (disclaimer), the school meals program is extremely complicated. In our FWIW blog series, we will attempt to break down the intricacies and confusion around school meals and hopefully shed light on the “worth” of school meals. We’ve looked at how school meals are funded. Now let’s dig into how school meal reimbursements work. 

In North Carolina, there are some schools that participate in the Community Eligibility Provision or CEP (which is also complicated but that’s for a future blog post). CEP provides meals at no cost to all students in the school and families do not have to complete household school meal applications to determine if they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Schools that are eligible for CEP have high percentages of students from low-income families. 

Schools that do not participate in CEP send home household applications and some also post them online for families to complete in order to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Eligibility is based on a number of factors, including household size, federal poverty level, and household income. Based on these figures, families will fall into one of three categories: eligible for reduced-price meals, eligible for free meals, or ineligible for either, meaning students must pay full price for school meals. 

School nutrition programs are reimbursed by the federal government based on the number of meals they serve. But the reimbursement is different based on whether the meals were paid, reduced-price, or free. You would think that it would be easy to just fill out some paperwork that says “We served 500 meals” and the federal government would say “Great! 500 multiplied by $5 a meal is $2,500.” But that’s not how it works. School nutrition programs have to say, “We served 370 free breakfasts, 100 reduced-price breakfasts, and 30 paid breakfasts. We also served 370 free lunches, 100 reduced-price lunches, and 30 paid lunches.” The federal government then calculates the reimbursement based on the type of meal (i.e., breakfast or lunch) and the meal tier (i.e., free, reduced-price, or paid). Oh did we mention school nutrition programs only receive reimbursements for meals actually served? So if a stomach bug takes out 100 kids one day and the school nutrition program had purchased and prepared enough food for 500 students but only 400 ate, the school nutrition program is out of luck for those extra 100 meals.

School nutrition programs also receive reimbursements from the state. In 2011, the General Assembly passed a law that required the state to match the $0.30 copay for all students who receive reduced-price breakfasts. Since 2011, all students who were eligible for reduced-price or free meals have not had to pay for breakfast. In 2023, the General Assembly included recurring funding in the budget to cover the copay for reduced-price school lunches. Families who are eligible for either reduced-price or free school meals based on their household application are able to eat both breakfast and lunch for free. The state pays the reduced-price rate for these meals to the school nutrition program. So, for every reduced-price eligible breakfast and lunch served, school nutrition programs receive federal reimbursement and copay reimbursement from the state. 

If you think this sounds like an outrageous amount of math and administrative paperwork, you’re not wrong. School meals are not as easy as A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3. They are extremely complicated and yet they are one of the most important parts of the school day.

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