NC school meal debt reaches a record $3.1 million, prompting calls for permanent free lunch
School lunch debt in North Carolina has reached a record $3.1 million, and a new coalition is looking to make it easier for kids to eat.
On March 9, the statewide advocacy coalition School Meals For All NC visited legislators to highlight students unable to pay for their meals. The amount of unpaid school meal debt in North Carolina is higher than it’s ever been. One reason why: School lunch was provided for free to all students for the first couple years of the COVID-19 pandemic. That federal benefit ended before the 2022-23 school year.
Morgan Wittman Gramman, who is executive director of North Carolina Alliance for Health, and one of the coalition’s members, said that needs to change.
“We know that providing school meals to all students in public schools at no cost to their families will eliminate meal debt,” said Gramman. “It will reduce hunger. It will improve academic performance and attendance. It will reduce shame and stigma. And we know that North Carolina is in a really good position to do this. We have the resources to do this.”
Enhanced food stamp benefits also came to an end this month, costing families at least $95 extra per month they received during the pandemic. Gramann said many lower-income families don’t qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Free lunch programs are open to all families, but eligibility is based on annual household income.
“A family of four who's working and making $51,339 a year would not qualify for their children, would not qualify for free and reduced-price meals,” said Gramann. “These are just hardworking North Carolinians.”
She also told WFAE that students can face consequences for unpaid school meal debt, which can vary by school district. In some extreme circumstances, lunch debt can result in a call to child protective services and debt collectors to recoup meal debt. Consequences can include removal from extracurricular activities, not being able to graduate or attend graduation.
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