As classes began this week for most North Carolina public school systems, more than a million students sat down to lunch.
For some children, that meal may be close to half of their entire daily caloric and nutrient intake.
Children in food insecure and marginally secure households rely more on school-provided food for their daily allotment of nutrients than those in highly secure households, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research.
“That’s a common theme that I hear from our principals and social workers, that anytime we are out of school, even the weekends, it is a struggle for some of our students,” Sandra Spivey told Carolina Public Press. She is the child nutrition director for Asheboro City Schools in Randolph County.
“We hear those stories of students who, whatever food they get at school, that’s the only food they get that day. Which is why we try to feed breakfast, lunch and snack, to try to feed as much as we can, as many as we can.”
Rates of food insecurity were found to be higher than the national average for households with incomes near or below the federal poverty line, single-parent households, and African American- and Hispanic-headed households, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Child Nutrition Services.
The National School Lunch Program, started by President Harry Truman in 1946, is the second-largest food and nutrition assistance program in the country. According to the USDA, the program supplied low cost or free lunches to 29.7 million children daily at a cost of $13.8 billion in 2018.
The total rate of participation across North Carolina’s 115 public school districts in the 2017-18 school year was 59.37%, with 777,151 students receiving free lunches and 63,938 receiving reduced price lunches, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Free and reduced price lunch
To qualify for free lunch, a student’s household must be at or below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines. For students to get a reduced price lunch, their household must be between 130% and 185% of the poverty level, according to the USDA.
However, the cost of lunch can weigh the heaviest on those who are just above the cutoff for free or reduced price lunch.
Lunch prices can vary by district or grade but typically cost $2-$2.50.
Qualifying for the reduced price brings the cost down to 40 cents. But even 40 cents can really add up, Amy Stanley, director of child nutrition for Bladen County Schools, told CPP.
“Especially that reduced price category, some of those children were so borderline. The 40 cents doesn’t sound like a lot to most, but if you’re in a very low income household, 40 cents a day adds up,” Stanley said.
“That reduced category is where we would see the biggest issue because a lot of them were just barely missing that free category.”
Free to all in some places
Some districts or schools can solve this problem by qualifying for Community Eligibility Provision, a program that allows areas with high numbers of eligible children to provide free lunch to all enrolled students.
CEP offers reimbursement for meals based on how many students in the area are direct certified, meaning they already qualify for other N.C. Department of Health and Human Services programs such as SNAP.
“Our number (in Bladen County) is around 77%,” Stanley said. “So three out of four of our children either receive state assistance, or they are homeless, migrant or foster.”
Thirty districts in North Carolina use CEP to provide free breakfast and lunch at all of their schools. Forty-four districts use CEP at one or more of their schools.
The remaining 41 do not use CEP at all, according to the DPI data for the 2017-18 school year.
Districts that use CEP in all schools have anywhere from a 90%-100% participation rate. Bladen County, for example, is at about 99.8%, meaning every student can receive free breakfast and lunch.
“And it has taken the stigma away because all students are the same,” Stanley said. “All eat at no cost.”
Community qualifications challenging
CEP has limitations, however. Some districts are close to qualifying but not enough to make the program cost effective for their area.
“It can become very costly if your poverty level is not high enough that you would be reimbursed in full,” said Spivey of the Asheboro City Schools.
“So now all kids are eating, but you are only getting reimbursed at a certain level. I would love for Congress or whoever to decide that school meals are going to be free, but that’s a hefty price tag.”
To meet the CEP requirements, a school or district must have at least 40% direct-certified students. However, Spivey said the rate must be closer to 60% to get the reimbursement level close to 100%. Otherwise, the program may only reimburse around 75% of the cost, and the school or district would have to come up with the other 25 percent.
For many districts, only some schools meet the criteria for CEP, a factor some feel could confuse students and parents.
“If you have 10 schools and they all fall under the criteria, that’s great,” said Donnie Lynthacum, director of child nutrition for Montgomery County Schools.
“But if you have 10 and only eight fall under the criteria, you have to figure out a way around that. Then those two schools would be affected differently,”
Procuring good food
Aside from CEP, schools can use other programs to make food planning easier. Montgomery County Schools use a fresh fruit and vegetable grant as well as the N.C. Procurement Alliance.
NCPA, a voluntary purchasing organization, combines the buying power of multiple districts to streamline the procurement process and lower costs. Savings can range from 5%-21%, about $62,000 to $108,000 per district, or $8.15 million total annually, according to NCDPI.
Asheboro City Schools use a contractor, Sodexo, to provide menu planning and employees such as nutritionists and cooks.
“We’ve been with Sodexo for 25 plus years,” Spivey said. “We work together to place the order, pay them a per meal fee, and they provide the labor. The food service contractor comes with various guarantees of quality, so it may be easier for Asheboro than other districts.”
Meeting federal meal requirements
Assistance with menu planning is key, as there are strict daily and weekly guidelines set by the USDA to be met for school meals for all grades.
All school lunches must have five components: fruit, vegetables, grain, milk and meat or meat alternative. Every week, half the grains must be whole grains, and meals must contain certain amounts of vegetable subgroups.
Each grade has its range for caloric limits. Meals must have less than 10% saturated fats and contain no added or artificial trans fats.
“Child nutrition can be quite complicated,” Spivey said. “I think people don’t realize all the many rules and things that go into feeding our students.”
These guidelines have a tendency to change with the most current nutrition science. Currently, there are sodium reduction guidelines with benchmarks to be met this year and again in 2022, according to the USDA.
“If you ask anybody in child nutrition, they’ll tell you it’s ever-evolving, changing numbers,” Lynthacum said.
“If something changes, they get the information out to you, and you have to go back through, make sure your schools and managers know about it. I don’t know if there’s any exact science to it. I want the kids to have something nutritional, but I also want them to have something they like, too. That’s a balancing job there.”
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Impacts of child nutrition
Proper nutrition provides students the essentials for growth and resistance to diseases and infection, according to the NCDPI Child Nutrition Services.
Health outcomes and disparities are often the result of social determinants such as poverty and access to medical care. Food insecure children are more at risk of obesity, poor oral health, poor growth, asthma, developmental risk, learning disabilities, poor academic outcomes, and behavioral and emotional problems, according to the Food and Research Center.
Families in food insecure or marginally secure households will often engage in cost saving behaviors such as purchasing a low-cost but nutrient-poor food, or making trade-offs between food and other basic necessities, the Food and Research Center found.
When children frequently have to make difficult decisions, such as going without food, they can develop toxic stress, a chronic buildup of stress hormone levels that wears on the brain and inhibits development.
Health risks such as these drive school districts to provide as much as they can, especially to those most at risk.
“We try to get our whole crew to help get a kid something to eat because you just don’t know what they are getting at home,” Lynthacum said.
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