Voices from the Front Line of School Nutrition in NC


UPDATE: USDA EXTENDS FREE MEALS FOR KIDS THROUGH DEC. 31, 2020

Check your school or district’s website, social media, and direct communications for the latest information on how where to find meals and how this might affect meal service for your children.

Thank you to USDA for making this decision that benefits all children and school nutrition staff in NC. And thank you to the school nutrition team at the NC Department of Public Instruction and the many other NC organizations that were early and fierce advocates for this extension.

“We don’t ask a child in the United States what your mama and daddy makes to get on the school bus. Or to get a textbook. Or to hand them a device. Why in the world do we draw the line in the cafeteria?

—School Nutrition Administrator in North Carolina


Below are excerpts from candid conversations that district-level School Nutrition Administrators in North Carolina had with university researchers about the challenges they face as schools reopen for the fall, and the experience of serving school meals during the COVID-19 emergency. More than 23 School Nutrition Administrators were interviewed, each from a different school district in North Carolina. We are sharing excerpts from this ongoing project that pertain to the urgent subject of school reopenings and decisions on how school meals are served.

March 16, 2020

Governor Roy Cooper announces that schools will close because of the COVID-19 emergency. School districts quickly pivot to new ways of providing meals to kids who rely on school for their nutrition.



Spring and Summer 2020

Schools and community partners serve free meals for all kids age 18 and under during COVID-19 school closures and the summer through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), using waivers from the USDA allowing SFSP to be used outside of its normal time and with other flexibilities.

September 1, 2020

The USDA waiver allowing free meals for kids under SFSP is set to expire. Schools will return to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which requires different categories for free and reduced-price eligible students and paid students, making it more difficult to distribute meals, especially through pick-up sites or deliveries.

We are also making available a collection of graphics for social media with highlights from the interviews, available for use by other organizations and individuals. Find it here.

The conversations took place as part of the research project “Understanding Reach and Implementation of School Nutrition Safety Net Programs for NC Families During COVID-19: Implications for Policy and Practice,” which includes researchers from the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Duke, UNC Greensboro, East Carolina University, and the Food Insight Group, with funding from NCTraCS. Stay tuned for more from this project on the challenges and innovations in meal service during the COVID-19 emergency.


The Need to Continue Offering Meals Free to All Children

“I just feel like we could do better as a society for our kids. I think we would send a better message that school meals are valued by providing them at no charge.


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Southwest Region of North Carolina

“Just let any kid come through the line and eat if they need to eat. Then we can guarantee that there’s no kid hungry.


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Northeast Region of North Carolina

“We have asked for years and years for school nutrition programs to be funded, and to feed all kids. And if it’s ever going to happen, it needs to happen now.


A School Nutrition Administrator from a charter school in North Carolina

“If we have to identify every student and process them by national school lunch guidelines, we’re only going to be able to feed them two out of the five days.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Southeast Region of North Carolina

It hurt our hearts not being able to continue on the free status for everyone, and trying to figure out how we’re going to serve students.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the North Central Region of North Carolina

“The paid kids should not have to hold that program up… If their parents pay or not: it’s not the kid’s fault. So, I think federally the program should just be straight across the board universal free. Come up with a plan. You just did it for 12 weeks. So, it can be done.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Northeast Region of North Carolina

“We really need to get to universal free breakfast and universal free lunch.


A School Nutrition Administrator from the North Central Region of North Carolina

“Our mission… is to contribute to the academic success of every student by providing nutritious meals. All students really deserve that.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Western Region of North Carolina

“Our children are an investment, they’re not an expense, and I think that’s where we need to change our whole philosophy.


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Southeast Region of North Carolina

“It’s going to be unmanageable come September 1 if we have to start requiring payment.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Western Region of North Carolina

“I don’t know how you can be a human and say, that waiver [allowing free meals for all kids] is not important.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Piedmont-Triad Region of North Carolina

I don’t want to have to turn someone away if you’ve got other little children that are in the car and that can’t receive a meal. Because that would tear me all to pieces.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the North Central Region of North Carolina


Appreciation and Pride from Serving Meals During COVID-19 Closures and Summer 2020

“When families would pull up, not only did our staff feed them physically, they fed them spiritually and emotionally.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Southeast Region of North Carolina

“I am getting to see a community that really cares, from the mayor, to the superintendent, to the police chief, and so on. I think when you give folks the opportunity to step up and help, they will do it…


A School Nutrition Administrator from the North Central Region of North Carolina

“We’ve had a lot of families come back and thank us.


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Piedmont-Triad Region of North Carolina

“The community has really stepped up and helped us.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Piedmont-Triad Region of North Carolina

“We’re the only ones here at the school week-to-week since March… I don’t think [others] fully grasp what my folks have done since this COVID has started. I mean, it’s just the positivity… you can see it in the eyes of our parents, when they come get meals for the kids. When this first kicked off, they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families.


A School Nutrition Administrator from a charter school in North Carolina

“It has been unreal how people have pulled together. [School nutrition teams] don’t always feel like we’re a priority. We always feel we’re at the other end of the scale. But people have come to realize that we are important.


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Northeast Region of North Carolina

“I think it’s kind of opened everybody’s eyes to the understanding of how many people actually do not have access to good nutrition every day.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Northwest Region of North Carolina

“I think we’ve improved a lot of relationships… by just letting everybody work together and get to see what our job is, in our department, and what that entails… And it has given parents an opportunity to see what school lunch really is.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Western Region of North Carolina

“I think it’s brought a different appreciation for what our folks do.”


A School Nutrition Administrator from the Sandhills Region of North Carolina


This study was conducted through a partnership of UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Duke University School of Medicine Department of Population Health Sciences, UNC Greensboro Department of Nutrition, East Carolina University Department of Public Health, Carolina Hunger Initiative, and Food Insight Group. The project was supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), National Institutes of Health, through Grant Award Number UL1TR002489 and NIH’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) [ID: K12HL138030]. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH.