NC’s already dire childhood hunger problem has gotten a lot worse

NC’s already dire childhood hunger problem has gotten a lot worse

- in Education, Top Story
Image: Adobe Stock

State and local officials have been forced to improvise in an effort to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry kids

Even before the pandemic forced schools to close in mid-March, food insecurity was a big problem in North Carolina. The state ranks 10th in the U.S. in the percentage of people — 15.1% — who at some point in the year don’t know where their next meal is coming from, according to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization. 

So it wasn’t a big leap to think that the problem would get worse after the coronavirus outbreak forced school buildings to close for the remainder of the academic year. Schools are where many needy students receive their only guaranteed meals of the day: breakfast and lunch. School nutrition staffs serve 1.2 million meals per day when school buildings are open.

“Under normal circumstances, students are very dependent upon meals at school,” Lynn Harvey, state director of school nutrition and district operations, told lawmakers last week. “But now, under the epidemic, their reliance upon meals provided by a school is greater than ever.”

Almost immediately after Gov. Roy Cooper announced school buildings would close, school nutrition staffs across the state began developing plans to continue to feed students. Districts switched from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to Summer Food Service Program to gain flexibility in how and where lunches are prepared and served. 

Over the past two months, cafeteria workers and bus drivers have risked health and life to distribute and serve more than 18 million meals to needy students, many of whom are now learning from home. 

Lynn Harvey, state director of school nutrition and district operations

Anthony Vann, superintendent of operations for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, said providing meals for students during the pandemic is as essential as internet access and equipment for online learning. “They’re certainly not going to concentrate on our e-learning or any kind of educational experience if they’re hungry, because that’s going to be the first thing on their mind,” Vann said.   

The need for school meals has no doubt grown greater in the two months since the COVID-19 crisis shut down the economy and sent unemployment numbers skyrocketing. More than 1 million people in North Carolina have filed for unemployment benefits. “With as many business closures and job losses as we’ve seen, we’re hearing about more and more parents in need and reaching out for the kinds of resources that are available to them through our local schools,” Harvey said. 

Here are some statistics Harvey shared to illustrate the important role of school lunches in the lives of students before the COVID-19 crisis: 

  • Nearly 60% of students (826,000) enrolled in North Carolina’s public schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals. 
  • Approximately one in five or 22.4% of the nation’s children live in food insecure households.
  • More than one in four or 27.6% of children in North Carolina struggle with hunger.
  • Many students struggle with hunger because they live in economically distressed households, yet they do not qualify for meal benefits at school.

What to do this summer?

As the academic year nears its end, more than 80% of school districts want to continue to provide meals to needy students over summer break. Summer meals programs usually distribute about 100,000 meals per day, Harvey said. But under the current crisis, the districts have been providing 500,000 a day, a volume that will be expensive for those already buckling under the fiscal burden caused by the coronavirus outbreak. 

School nutrition programs were hit hard when state officials granted workers emergency paid leave, Harvey said. Many cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and other hourly workers took leave instead of risking health and safety by reporting to work. “It was the right thing to do for all category of employees,” Harvey said of the decision to grant workers emergency paid leave. “But that amount of funding [for cafeteria workers] came from the school nutrition budget, so the budget was being depleted on a daily basis.” 

The weekly payroll for school nutrition programs in North Carolina is about $7.2 million. Districts experienced a $4.4 million shortfall because of a reduction in the number of meals served that qualified for U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursement. Another $3.2 million in revenue has been lost because students aren’t in school to purchase meals. 

But at least some help is on the way.  

The state’s 115 school districts will share $75 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to help support school nutrition efforts. 

Additional state funding might be needed, but  exactly how much is not yet clear. 

“We don’t know at this point,” Harvey explained. “We’d like to think that the projections that we had to take forward to the legislative body will help ensure optimal funding to allow the districts to go for as long as they can. We certainly know that we’re going to need additional funding.” 

The vast majority of annual funding — $515 million  — comes from the federal government. The next largest share — $144.5 million — is revenue from meals bought by students. The state kicks in only about $7 million. 

The State Board of Education approved a plan Thursday to divvy up the federal money districts will use to prop up the school nutrition program. All public schools that participate in the NSLP or School Breakfast Program from March 16 to the end of the school year are eligible to receive the federal money. It will be allocated based on federal meal reimbursements and eligible student meal receipts each school received in February.   

Delivery and distribution challenges

Beyond money for school nutrition, additional state funding to keep school buses rolling throughout the summer is essential, Harvey said. Districts have used the buses to deliver meals and homework assignments to students who lack internet connections.   

“If we lose school buses to provide those meals, we’ll reduce meals from 500,000 per day to roughly 125,000 to 150,000, leaving again many food insecure, vulnerable children unable to receive meals.” Harvey said. “We’re greatly concerned but we know if we’re going to keep those school buses running, but we know we’re going to need additional funding to support those school buses as we move forward.” 

In the mostly rural, high-poverty Rowan-Salisbury school district, more than 60% of nearly 20,000 students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches. The district has relied heavily on buses to deliver meals to students who attend its 34 schools.   

In most districts, meals are delivered to a central area for pickup by students and parents, but Lisa Altmann, the district’s director of school nutrition, said using school buses to deliver meals to homes is more practical because some families don’t have transportation to go to central pickup sites. 

“Transportation is a real barrier,” Altmann said. 

Rowan-Salisbury traditionally provides students with meals over the summer. Altmann said about 3,000 meals are served each day in the program. Currently, the district is serving about 24,000 meals a day, including breakfast and lunch.   

School officials have committed to providing the same number of meals over the summer, which will represent a significant expansion of its summer program. Its school nutrition program will receive $947,539 in federal money to help it keep serving meals. 

“Right now, we’ve gotten ourselves [fiscally] to June 30,” Altmann said. “So, now we’re thinking about July and it’s possible that if we continue with the yellow buses, we’ll need additional money because I’m not sure how long the transportation money will last.” 

But with the support of Superintendent Lynn Moody and the Board of Education, Altmann is confident the district will find a way to   continue to feed students. “She’s [Moody] actually been on our buses, and she’s seen firsthand what we do,” Altmann said.