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NC education leaders seek federal extension of free school meals for all

Ann Doss Helms
A staffer serves meals at Mallard Creek High School before the pandemic.

Children across North Carolina could go hungry next month if the federal government doesn't extend a "free meals for all" program introduced during the pandemic, the state's top two education officials say.

When schools across the nation closed because of COVID-19 in 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived its normal regulations for school breakfast and lunch subsidies. The federal government loosened nutritional restrictions and provided extra money to ensure children were fed as the pandemic disrupted families and the economy.

Those waivers expire June 30, in the midst of summer meal programs.

"The loss of these waivers will devastate school meal programs and threaten their sustainability. School meals will be jeopardized for thousands of North Carolina students who depend upon them as their primary source of food during the week," state Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Board of Education Chair Eric Davis wrote to North Carolina's senators.

In an interview Monday, Truitt said rising costs for food, gasoline and other supplies related to school meals block school districts from returning to pre-pandemic "normal."

Over the last couple of years, "everything that goes into feeding children has doubled or tripled, and the food cost itself has risen up to 40%," she said.

Inflation also eats into family budgets, she said, "which means that lots of children will go July 1 until school starts without getting meals. And we do feed students throughout the summer."

Old system is confusing

Before the pandemic, the USDA subsidized school breakfasts and lunches based on family income. Some children qualified for free meals and others for reduced prices.

In addition, some high-poverty schools were able to provide free food for all students without requiring families to fill out applications.

By waiving its restrictions while schools were doing remote and hybrid lessons, the federal government ensured no children would miss meals because their families didn't fill out forms or meet income guidelines. It also meant school districts wouldn't be penalized for failing to meet nutrition guidelines amid food shortages.

Now, with the waivers set to expire, school boards and other government bodies are figuring out how to fill the gaps.

Gov. Roy Cooper's budget proposal includes $3.9 million to cover the full cost of meals for students who qualify only for a reduced price (30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch). But Truitt says families who fall just over the limit also struggle to pay bills.

"The real concern here is the families who don’t qualify for subsidized meals but who are really feeling the effects of this economy," she said.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board recently voted to hold meal prices at pre-pandemic levels: $2.75 for lunch in grades K-8 and $3 for high school. The district will provide free breakfast for all students and free lunch for all students in qualified schools.

Wake County Public Schools recently approved a 25-cent increase for the coming school year. That means students without subsidies will pay $3 for lunch in elementary schools and $3.25 for middle and high schools. Wake had planned to charge $1.50 to $1.75 for unsubsidized breakfasts, but county commissioners there approved $40,000 to cover the cost for all students.

Seeking federal help

The letter from Davis and Truitt urges Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to support Senate Bill 3979, which would extend the waivers and the universal free meals through September 2023.

"Superintendents and school nutrition directors are doing their best to recover from pandemic conditions, but it will take more time for the marketplace to rebound and for the current economy to stabilize," they wrote. "Continuation of the waivers for at least one more year is critical to ensure children have access to nutritious school meals, to support program sustainability and to prevent substantial financial losses for schools in our state."

The School Nutrition Association also supports extending the waivers through the coming school year. The trade association, which represents more than 50,000 school meal providers, says shortages, high prices and continuing COVID-19 cases are disrupting school meal programs across the country.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.