For more than two years, all public school students across the nation have been able to access healthy school meals at no cost to them, ensuring every child has the opportunity to engage in learning without the distraction of hunger.
But beginning with the 2022-23 school year, the federally subsidized program started in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to provide a stable food safety net for all public school children has come to an end. Free school meals are still available to those who meet income requirements; however, students coming from households earning just above income thresholds to qualify must pay for school breakfast and lunch at full price.
The result? Far fewer meals are being served in school cafeterias to students, and many leaders are worried.
“We are already seeing a decrease in about 300 school lunches served per day as compared with what we served during COVID,” said Dr. John Shepard, principal of North Henderson High School. “That’s gut wrenching to me, because that’s 300 kids that normally would be eating, but aren’t.”
There are many reasons that could explain why those 300 fewer meals are being served, and Shepard believes a lot it has to do with access. Roughly 60% of his student population qualifies for free- and reduced-priced meals. But the application a family must fill out in order to qualify is cumbersome and challenging for parents, he says, and often requires information that families are reluctant to share.
And then, said Shepard, there are the “bubble kids.”
“That’s where the biggest impact is,” said Shepard. “If you’re a dollar over the income threshold qualification – you can’t qualify. And those kids are hurting more than in recent times.”
Shepard says skyrocketing inflation and the cost of food continues to have an enormous impact on the families in his community. And the free- and reduced-price meal program’s qualification criteria don’t take those factors into account – the application only considers the size of your household and the earnings your family brings in.
“If you’re a family with a lot of medical bills, student loan debt, or just simply don’t earn wages that are keeping pace with inflation, and yet you don’t qualify [for free- and reduced-priced meals] – then you’re making really hard choices about how to feed your family,” said Shepard.
“The impact of universal access to healthy school meals has been enormous,” said Andrew Harrell, program and communication manager for No Kid Hungry NC and the Carolina Hunger Initiative. “When you make these healthy meals available for all, it reduces stigma and creates a powerful equity component for schools.”
In North Carolina, approximately 60% of the student population statewide qualified for free- and reduced-price meals before the pandemic, Harrell said. Food insecurity is a significant issue for our state. North Carolina is the 15th hungriest state in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Now with the start of the 2022-23 school year, free school meals are no longer available for all students. Many parents are struggling with the application process, while at the same time their children are also experiencing the stigma that can result from qualifying for free school meals.
“How do you explain to a second grader that some kids get free meals at school, and some don’t?” said Harrell. “Eliminating that stigma is essential to ensuring that all students can feel comfortable accessing meals and then, in turn, can be able to learn.”