August 15, 2023
Ray Russolillo, a retired CPA, wears several hats as a volunteer and social activist affiliated with the School Meals for All NC Coalition, MANNA FoodBank, MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger, and Carolina Jews for Justice.
Does this sound like too much to ask? No child should go hungry and school meals should be available to all students in North Carolina at no cost to their families. I suspect you are thinking that the first part about making sure kids have enough to eat sounds pretty good but that second part about free food for all sounds expensive. And you may be right in terms of current dollars and cents, but what is the real cost of doing business as usual?
I submit to you that the indirect social and economic costs are greater – much greater – and will hurt us all in the end.
The truth is that 1 in 6 children in North Carolina goes hungry on a daily basis. 1 in 6. On its face this statistic should be unacceptable to you. When you dig deeper you find that it is not only unacceptable, it is downright horrific. When I say “hungry,” I do not mean that queasy feeling one gets right before lunchtime coupled with a growling stomach. I’m talking about kids not knowing if or when they will eat again and the attendant mental and physical stress. Naturally, such stress adversely impacts school attendance, concentration, and academic performance. Further, it shames students whose families cannot afford school meals in front of their wealthier peers. This vicious cycle effectively robs the hungry child of the full value of their education which, in turn, robs society of a properly educated adult entering the job market at the appropriate time.
But there is some good news, at least for Buncombe County Schools (BCS). BCS recently qualified for and expanded its participation in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal nutrition funding program designed to help schools serve economically stressed populations. This program is a giant step toward the provision of school meals for all but is limited only to the districts that qualify. It provides no-cost meals for all students, requires no household applications to establish eligibility, and reduces administrative time and paperwork. It has been available nationwide since 2014 for schools or school districts with an Identified Student Percentage (ISP) of 40% or more (“identified students” are those automatically eligible for no-cost meals without the use of household applications to the school, such as children from federal SNAP (food stamp) beneficiary families). In accepting this funding, BCS has committed to serving no-cost breakfast and lunch to ALL students during a 4-year cycle after which it will have to reapply to continue with the program.
So, kudos to BCS, but its situation is hardly unique, and unfortunately, not all neighboring districts participate in the stopgap CEP program to the fullest potential. The reasons for this nonparticipation are complex; suffice it to say that, within federal and state guidelines, local school nutrition directors are charged with running their programs as cost-effectively as possible and balancing funding sources, participation rates, and, yes, even revenue from paying students makes for an odd calculus that can lead to very odd conclusions.
The most recent statistics released by the North Carolina Department of Public Education further highlight the problem in NC – 80% of all local education agencies in the state are eligible to participate in CEP yet only 54% actually do participate. Put another way, out of the 1.4 million students who could benefit from this program, only 31% (about 450,000) actually do. The good news is, North Carolina is participating in a pilot that will utilize Medicaid data to determine categorically eligible students. This will increase ISPs and it is anticipated that many more districts will participate in CEP this year. Districts are recognizing that feeding every child is a top priority.
While the federal Community Eligibility Program helps, it isn’t the answer for every student in every public school in our state. Funding school meals for all is the answer and North Carolina can afford to do so. A half dozen states have already implemented some form of school meals for all and about 25 others, including North Carolina, have entered the political fray of planning, drafting, discussing, and negotiating policies. Unfortunately, North Carolina is nowhere near as far along as it should be in this process. I challenge our legislators to fast-track consideration of this concept and find a way to fund school meals for all, right alongside other essential school costs like instruction, transportation, books, supplies, and extracurriculars. North Carolina students are the future of our state and they deserve no less. Sound food policy is sound education policy.