Eat well to learn well

The key role of school meals in fighting child hunger

By: Luna Homsi  | March 2023

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In North Carolina, 1 in 6 children struggle with hunger, which means they aren’t able to get enough food or they aren’t able to get enough healthy food. That’s over 400,000 children in our state. Yet 29% of those children do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals because their family’s income is too high. Providing no-cost school meals can help.   

School meals reduce child hunger

In a typical school year, more than 60% of children are eligible for subsidized meals in our state. There are 28 North Carolina school districts where over 90% of children are enrolled in free or reduced-price school meal programs. School breakfasts and lunches are a key ingredient in fighting child hunger and helping students focus at school.  

School meals boost grades

As anyone might guess, being hungry makes it harder for kids to learn. Study after study shows that no-cost school meals improve academic outcomes for students and for schools. For example, a study here in North Carolina found that offering meals to all students at no cost reduced absences and suspensions. School meals make it more likely that students come to school and helps them stay engaged in their classes.  

School meals make for healthier kids

Students who participate in free school meal programs have fewer visits to the school nurse, as well as documented improvements in behavior and mental health indicators. They also have lower body mass index (BMI) and lower probability of obesity. School meals are designed to meet nutrition standards and promote healthy eating. All students should have the same opportunity to eat nutritious meals at school.  

School meals are an effective solution

During the COVID-19 public health crisis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented federal waivers that gave school districts the flexibility to make school meals free to all students. That meant students could come to school ready to learn without having to worry about their next meal. During that time no paperwork was required for families to access get free school breakfast and lunches – removing barriers for kids, and cutting administrative burdens for local school districts. That program ended with the start of the 2022-2023 school year.  

Since the federal waivers disappeared, school meal debt has skyrocketed. From August to December of 2022, North Carolina public schools accrued more than $3.1 million in school meal debt. Some school districts have responded by cutting kids’ access to healthy meals when their families can’t pay – exacerbating a child hunger problem that is already too high.  

It’s clear that families in our state are struggling to pay for school meals. The simplest solution to school meal debt is to make school meals available to all students in public schools at no cost to their families.  

Take Action

Ask your state legislator to fund no-cost school meals for all public school students in North Carolina.  

We came together in 2020 to provide free school meals to North Carolina public school students, and we can do it again. Let’s get all kids the nutritious food that they need to be healthy and successful at school.