More kids need healthy meals and school lunch programs need major changes, Wake officials tell USDA

More kids need healthy meals and school lunch programs need major changes, Wake officials tell USDA

More kids need access to free meals, Wake County leaders said Tuesday.

State and county leaders made their pitch Tuesday to Cindy Long, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

They’re asking for grants and policy changes — such as allowing more families to be eligible for assistance — in the short term, but Wake leaders said their ultimate goal is to secure free breakfast and lunch for all North Carolina students. That would cost about $125 million, Wake County Public School System Superintendent Robert Taylor said.

“Quality nutrition for children has a direct impact on student achievement,” Taylor said Tuesday. “And what we know is that a well-fed body [and] well-hydrated brain makes it that much more conducive to learning. And if we are serious about our children doing well academically, the nutrition is a large part of that.”

Several states have begun offering free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income, including Maine, Michigan and Massachusetts. In North Carolina, state lawmakers have covered the cost of reduced-price meals for those who qualify, making them free for those families.

The USDA has helped school lunch programs with increasing subsidies and grants in recent years, but the funds have often been temporary.

And the cost of providing a meal has been going up.

The Wake County school board has raised school meal prices three years in a row now, following a vote last month to do so yet again by $0.25 per meal.

Long said preventing price hikes like that comes down to changing the identity of school lunch programs from standalone restaurant operations to integral school functions.

But she cautioned that every idea to make changes comes down to resources.

“All the things that we talked about, in terms of what the opportunities and the challenges are, so many of them came back to resources,” Long said, referring to the private meeting she had with state and local leaders.

More kids need healthy meals and school lunch programs need major changes, Wake officials tell USDA
Cindy Long, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (left), and Wake County Public School System Superintendent Robert Taylor (right) eat lunch with fourth-graders at Kingswood Elementary on June 4, 2024. Long and Taylor met with state and local leaders to talk about improving access to healthy meals for schoolchildren. Emily Walkenhorst/WRAL

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children who qualify for free and reduced-price meals don’t apply to receive that benefit, often because their parents are too proud to accept the benefit. But that can jeopardize their child’s ability to receive a nutritious school lunch if they can’t afford one, or place a high burden on a family without much financial bandwidth.

Wake County Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler says that was her experience growing up.

Johnson-Hostler said her family felt the stigma of being lower-income, and she wants to make sure other children don’t have to worry about that, in Wake County or across North Carolina.

The school system has 12 schools with high enough poverty levels among students that all breakfasts and lunches are free. That number could go up to 34 to 40 schools next year. More schools will be eligible in part because of changing participation requirements. Lowering eligibility requirements is something officials said could help expand access to the meals, although money would still be required in the form of federal reimbursements for those meals.

Qualifying is only part of a child gaining access to the meal.

According to the Carolina Hunger Initiative, only about half of Wake County children who have applied for the free or reduced-price lunch benefit and qualified to take lunch every day. Only about a quarter of them take the breakfast every day.

That could be a quality issue, Officials said.

Long and several other officials on Tuesday visited Kingswood Elementary in Cary to talk and then checked out the school lunch for themselves.

Long and Taylor grabbed Baja fish tacos, topped them with diced tomatoes, picked out apples, dished out some buttered corn, and took a carton of milk.

“They were, as I like to say, both nutritious and delicious,” Long said of the tacos. “Really enjoyed it.”

Long and Taylor sat down next to a handful of excited fourth-grade boys, with whom they discussed their summer plans.

Long always asks kids who bring their lunch why they don’t want the school meal, adding that they told her they just don’t prefer the taste of the school meal.

“Providing a meal that tastes good, meets federal nutrition requirements and costs low enough for families to afford them each day is the needle the school system is trying to thread,” Taylor said.

The lunch menu on Tuesday at Kingswood also included beef and cheese chalupas and yogurt parfait. Children could top their tacos and chalupas with lettuce, diced tomatoes, and salsa. Children could also buy cookies and chips as extras.

About half of the kids still brought their lunches.

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