June 22, 2023

By Shannon Aiken, Jennifer Hickey, Edie Lindley

Master of Social Work Student, UNCW

In the field of social work, we answer the call to dismantle injustice and pursue social change. We have been moved to accomplish this as Master of Social Work students studying at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. United by a policy advocacy project and internships focused on serving children and families, we became inspired to advocate for greater food and resource security. 

Over 17% of children in North Carolina are food insecure, with rates higher in single-parent families and families of color. School meals have been identified as the main source of nutrition for all children, providing a pivotal opportunity for communities to combat hunger. With every child offered a free public education, schools are a uniquely accessible place to address inequities. We believe a great place to start is with an important and basic human need: food. 

We recall from our own days in public school observing the stigma and disparities associated with current school meal programs. The student with meal debt who was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hot lunch, we remember. The student who was ostracized for being a free school lunch recipient, we remember. Prominent human development theories, like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, emphasize how basic needs (e.g., food, shelter, safety) must be satisfied before humans may achieve their complete personal development and potential. Public schools provide free and equitable access to learning resources like textbooks, media centers, and sometimes even computers or tablets. Students experiencing hunger, or concern for their next meal, are less equipped to learn and participate in school. 

From a social work perspective, providing free school meals for every student satisfies a basic need to foster greater success both inside and outside of the classroom. To learn more, please review our brief that details more research on the benefits of free school meals and join us in advocating for our students in North Carolina.

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