September 1, 2022

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. 

In North Carolina, school nutrition programs are considered enterprises, meaning they are responsible for raising their own revenue. To do so, school nutrition programs rely on:

  • Federal reimbursements for free, reduced-price, and paid meals actually served. This is why teachers are under a tremendous amount of pressure first thing in the morning to get their attendance and lunch counts turned in. The school nutrition program staff need to cook enough food to feed the students in attendance but if they cook too much, they won’t receive reimbursement for any meals they didn’t serve. 
  • State reimbursements for reduced-price breakfast and lunch copays. The NC General Assembly passed a law in 2011 that covers the reduced-price breakfast copays. In 2023, the General Assembly included recurring funding in the budget to cover reduced-price lunch copays in the state. This means that students who qualify to receive reduced-price meals can receive breakfast and lunch at no cost. 
  • Student meal payments from full-price meals and a la carte items like ice cream and snacks.

For most school nutrition programs, there are no other sources of funding. And, as you can imagine, many school nutrition programs actually end up in the red at the end of the year. What happens then? Well, some school districts will provide funding to get them back into the black. Some will not. There are a few districts that actually provide proactive funding to their school nutrition programs but those are what we call unicorns.

Notably, no funding is provided from any source for salaries and benefits for school nutrition staff, which include legislatively mandated salary increases and health insurance costs. 

In our next post, we’ll explain the complicated algorithm of how meal reimbursements work. Don’t worry, we’re bringing in an expert mathematician to help us out because it’s serious algebra. 

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