EDITOR’S NOTE: Lou Anne Crumpler is the director of the Carolina Hunger Initiative in the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Children cannot learn if they are hungry. Nutrition is an essential resource for all students, therefore it is in everyone’s best interest to provide healthy school meals at no-cost for every student, regardless of income.
Resources such as desks, textbooks, and buses for transportation are already provided to all public school students, without consideration of their family’s financial background. Why is a resource as crucial as food left off that list? The academic benefits to children who have good nutrition are obvious. School meals, which are supported with federal dollars from the USDA, can also be an economic benefit to a community.
The benefits of healthy school meals go even further for students and schools. Research from No Kid Hungry shows that school breakfast, when made part of the school day by serving it after the bell instead of before school begins, can reduce absenteeism by an average of 6 percentage points. The same study also showed that “Breakfast After the Bell” improved troubling behaviors such as anxiety, loneliness, and self-esteem among students.
That is important for teachers who are seeing increased behavioral disruptions among students returning to the classroom after more than a year away. School meals offer students vital social-emotional support by establishing stable routines and providing time to build relationships and trust among students and adults.
California and Maine have already taken legislative action to make school meals available at no-cost to all students. Other states have legislation that requires maximizing every opportunity to use the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, a policy option for high-need schools that makes meals no-cost for all students.
Many schools in North Carolina are already using CEP. We should continue to fill the gaps and help remaining schools take advantage of it wherever possible. The next step is to continue increasing participation in school meal programs.
More participation means more federal reimbursements. That’s necessary to make CEP cost-effective. Plus, more reimbursement dollars mean more money to spend on food, leading to higher quality items and greater menu appeal, and to spend on nutrition staff, providing them with more hours and benefits.
The General Assembly was also on the right track pre-pandemic when it appropriated $ 3.9 million to eliminate the copay that separates students eligible for reduced-price school meals from getting them for free. Returning to this idea would be another great step for the legislature to take.
For more than two years, emergency waivers issued in response to COVID-19 made school meals available at no-cost to all students nationwide. This should be a model going forward. It has been a crucial support for school nutrition departments at a time when they were facing many obstacles, from labor challenges to supply chain disruptions. And having these meals provided at no cost has been a much-needed resource for families dealing with inflation and other upheavals.
There are clear steps we can take in North Carolina to work towards no-cost healthy school meals for all students. We have examples from other states of how to make it cost-effective, and ways to continue measuring the success and progress. Most importantly, this policy would contribute significantly to the health, academic success, and equitable opportunities for our students.
We should act now to pass policies that provide no-cost healthy meals for all students at public schools in our state.
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