COVID relief funding allowed schools to provide meals at no cost to all school children over the last year. (Image via Shutterstock.) Healthy food, healthy minds.
COVID relief funding allowed schools to provide meals at no cost to all school children over the last year. (Image via Shutterstock.)

Schools participating in the federal school lunch program provided meals at no cost for the last year. That will end in June.

Not every family can afford to put nutritious food on the table.

And that’s why school lunch programs serve an important role in feeding kids the food needed to thrive and become the leaders of tomorrow, said Ruth McDowell, the child nutrition director for Edgecombe County Public Schools. 

“We have to feed their minds right now, so that they will be ready to take on that challenge,” she said.

Over the last year, North Carolina school kids had access to meals free of cost. A provision in the pandemic relief program passed by the US Congress and signed by President Joe Biden made school breakfasts and lunches free to all students.

Too often, those meals were the only nutritious meal some children got in a day, said McDowell. 

“I honestly feel like that the meals that they get in school, those are the only meals that they will receive for that particular day,” said McDowell, who is also the president-elect for the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina.

But the pandemic relief funding is slated to end on June 30.  In addition to the lost cash, school nutrition leaders like McDowell will also lose valuable flexibility in federal regulations that  let them to find creative ways to deliver food to children.  

For instance, McDowell tapped the school system’s bus drivers last year to deliver meals to kids’ homes. That’s a big deal in Edgecombe County. Nearly three out of 10 kids are living in homes where their next meal isn’t guaranteed.  

The efforts paid off, and the county schools saw summer participation in their meals program soar  by nearly 500%. The county system dropped off  208,439 meals in summer 2021 at homes, trailer parks, churches, and other local sites.

McDowell said one local woman who  told her the food allowed her to feed her grandchildren. 

Problems Ahead

But many of the county’s children will face obstacles getting to the county sites this summer, she knows, especially with gas prices as high as they are.  

McDowell and other nutrition directors from North Carolina school systems are backing the “Support Kids Not Red Tape” bill in the US Senate, which would keep the flexibility in place that McDowell used to bus meals to kids. The bill has the support of Senate Democrats, which have a slim majority, and two Republicans – US Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr haven’t signed on to support the legislation. 

“We should make it easier for kids to get the meals they need – not harder. Our bill cuts red tape and keeps the priority on giving children the healthy meals they need and deserve,” said US Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat,  in a statement.  

The Senate bill, if it were to pass, would keep free breakfasts and lunches available through next school year, regardless of income, and retain flexibility for local nutrition directors like McDowell. 

Local PTA organizations, teacher groups, and anti-hunger organizations have also signaled support.

McDowell, for one, is hoping to see the bill passed so that she can get to work feeding more kids this summer.

“Let all kids have access to food, not just a few,” McDowell said.