Politics & Government

School lunches for thousands of NC students would be covered under budget plan

The state could pick up the school lunch tab for tens of thousands of lower-income North Carolina students — and in the process reduce the number of cases of school lunch shaming.

The budget adopted by state lawmakers would cover the 40 cents per lunch charged to students who qualify for a reduced price under the federal school lunch program. The budget also requires the state Department of Public Instruction to study how much unpaid student meal debt exists across the state and how much of it is from students who qualify for reduced-price meals.

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican, said he pushed for the lunch provision after hearing that some North Carolina schools provide students with less nutritional alternatives if they have unpaid meal bills.

“As a farmer myself surrounded by food, there’s no reason that we have children in this state not being served a nutritious lunch,” Jackson said in an interview Tuesday.

The new program is up in the air after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the $24 billion state budget proposal, citing concerns such as the lack of Medicaid expansion. It’s unclear whether the $3 million budgeted to pay for school lunches will still be included when a budget is finally agreed on.

Supporters of expanding free meals for students are hopeful that it will ultimately be funded. They note how the state already pays the breakfast costs for reduced-price students.

“Providing children who are eligible for reduced-priced lunch at no cost, like our legislators have already done for breakfast, will help reduce stigma, shame, lunch debt, and ensure more kids get the nutritious meals they need to reach their full potential,” said Marianne Hedrick Weant, grassroots coordinator for the North Carolina Alliance for Health.

More than 60,000 students across the state qualified for a reduced-price lunch in the 2017-18 school year. Under federal income guidelines, that works out for a family of four to be an annual household income of between $32,630 and $46,435.

Amy Stanley, president of the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina, said many of the children who qualify for reduced-price meals are barely above the income limit for free meals. She said that’s why the group is grateful that lawmakers are willing to pick up the school lunch costs.

“This will relieve a lot of burden on these families,” Stanley said.

Jackson said he became motivated to act after learning that many students who qualify for a reduced-price lunch have racked up large amounts of unpaid meal debt. This has resulted in some students not being allowed to eat the regular school lunch until their debt is paid off.

“I just think it’s wrong that our children are having that much pressure put on them that they don’t get the same lunch as their friends,” Jackson said. “There’s enough peer pressure in my opinion to go around already with students. This should be something they don’t have to worry about.”

brent jackson
NC Sen. Brent Jackson

Jackson initially filed legislation that both included the $3 million to cover school lunch costs and to require the DPI study of unpaid student meal debt. As part of the study, DPI would have to provide options for a statewide policy on unpaid meal charges that wouldn’t prevent students from receiving nutritious lunches.

It’s unclear how much student lunch debt exists statewide. In Durham alone, the district says the debt for the 2018-19 school year was $243,647.

Good Samaritans in the Triangle, statewide and nationally have raised money to try to help pay off debt for students across the country.

“A lot of school districts are relying on private donations to fill the gap,” Jackson said. “A lot of them are taking it out of their principals’ budget to meet that gap and some are just serving two different kinds of lunches.”

Since he’s also co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Jackson said he decided to include the lunch option in the budget.

Supporters of the lunch co-pay aren’t completely pleased with the legislative budget.

Weant of the North Carolina Alliance for Health notes that the $3 million wouldn’t be enough to cover every reduced-price student in the state. The budget says if the $3 million isn’t enough then DPI is supposed to pay the rest from any extra money in the National School Breakfast program.

The two-year state budget also only includes money for the 2019-20 school year to cover lunches.

“It’s hard to tell children and families that their reduced-price meal is going to be at no cost this year but it’s going to revert back next year,” Weant said. “You also need to allocate funds for every child.”

Jackson said funding wasn’t included in the 2020-21 school year as a way to put some pressure to get the study done on unpaid meal costs. He said the study will help them determine how much is needed next year for the program, which he says he expects will be funded.

Jackson said he also expects the program will be funded for this school year.

“I’m confident that we’re going to come up with a budget real soon, whether we override the veto or just come back and rewrite a budget,” Jackson said. “It’s my intention to try to keep this provision in the budget.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.