Child nutrition expert weighs in on impact free lunches for all could have

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students across the country were provided free meals to students – but that program is set to end in June.

Thousands of students in North Carolina rely on free school meals, and in New Hanover County, students in 28 of 43 schools are eligible for free lunches for all under the The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools with more than 40% of students eligible for free meals to provide them to all students, regardless of income levels.

For students in public schools, free meals provide access to nutritious foods to those who might not get that anywhere else, and the impacts of hunger are significant.

“If the students are not eating, then they’re not able to perform. The studies have shown that it causes stress and anxiety on the children, they don’t perform well in the classroom, they may have discipline problems. There’s all sorts of information that’s out there about that, but the kids, they need this meal. It’s important to their learning,” Child Nutrition Director for New Hanover County Schools Amy Stanley said.

One of the bills introduced in the House would require the state Department of Public Instruction to allocate enough money to all schools to provide free lunches to all students who need it.

With rising inflation and stagnant wages, that’s not always as simple as it sounds. Right now, a single parent with one child has to make less than $23,803, that’s about $11.44 an hour for someone working 40 hours a week. The cost of housing alone in New Hanover County and southeastern North Carolina as a whole is on the rise, and low wages along with a shortage of housing options, especially affordable options, make it difficult for someone making such a low wage to live in the region.

For reference, in New Hanover County, anyone paying more than 30% of their annual income on housing is considered cost-burdened. For someone making $23,803 a year, they’d have to spend less than $600 a month on housing to meet that criteria. And someone making $20 an hour would need to spend $1,040 or less of their income to have affordable housing, a task that is increasingly difficult.

So even those making more than the threshold to qualify for free meals can still struggle to afford basic essentials, like food. When people have to choose between housing costs, gas prices or other transportation to get to and from jobs, healthy meal options might suffer.