This school year, high-poverty schools across North Carolina will provide breakfast and lunch meals at no cost to students. As part of a laudable effort to eliminate child hunger, nearly 650 public schools have adopted a universal meal program that ensures that every child receives two nutritious meals each day and show up to class ready to learn. These schools serve more than 310,000 students – around 1 in every 5 students in public schools.
Schools in North Carolina that have adopted a universal meal program are part of a nation-wide initiative known as Community Eligibility, which aims to increase participation rates in breakfast and lunch programs in high-poverty schools. Children who show up to class with food in their stomach are inclined to be more focused and attentive, less distracted, and more engaged. Simply put, a child well-fed is better prepared to learn.
Little things can make a huge difference in children’s lives and adopting universal school meal programs in high-poverty schools represents a positive step in ensuring that all North Carolina students are afforded a high-quality education. With more than half of eligible schools adopting universal school meal programs for the current school year, North Carolina has embarked with great momentum in the first year of the nationwide Community Eligibility initiative. But many more children in North Carolina will still miss a meal or be hungry – more than 500 eligible schools are not participating in the Community Eligibility program.
Getting school breakfast and lunch meals get into the hands, and mouths, of students is the ultimate goal of the Community Eligibility initiative. By providing breakfast and lunch meals to all students free of charge, the stigma associated with the existing free and reduced meal programs – offered only to students from low- and moderate-income families – is eliminated and thus participation rates are increased.
While a big kudos is directed toward the schools that have adopted a universal school meals program, work remains to be done in eliminating child hunger in North Carolina. Many eligible high-poverty schools across the state are not participating in the Community Eligibility initiative. By adopting a universal meals program, schools can ensure that many more students arrive to class ready to learn each day.
North Carolina’s ability to compete for quality, good-paying jobs will increasingly require an educated and skilled workforce able to meet business demands in a 21st century economy. The investments we make today in our children will play a large role in the state’s ability to compete in this realm. Adopting universal school meal programs in high-poverty schools is a worthy investment that all residents of the Tar Heel State should support.