Students in high-poverty schools across North Carolina are showing up to class each day with food in their stomach and ready to learn thanks to an initiative known as Community Eligibility. As part of the nationwide Community Eligibility Program (CEP), schools within 54 school systems across the state are providing breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge. Some districts have adopted CEP in all of their schools.
North Carolina is the fifth hungriest state in the country, so providing healthy school meals at no cost to students and families is especially important for children – particularly those in our most distressed communities. As North Carolina continue to face the challenges of persistent poverty and ensuring that all students are afforded a high-quality education, access to nutritious school meals serves as a positive step forward.
The initial rollout of CEP in North Carolina has been promising. Nearly half of all public schools eligible to participate in CEP adopted the initiative for the current school year, representing more than 310,000 students (Click here to see a list of CEP-eligible, participating schools). This is wonderful news! Only two states in the south – Tennessee and Georgia – have more students attending schools that are participating in CEP.
CEP schools in North Carolina are seeing an increase in the number of students participating in their school breakfast and lunch programs. This highlights that the program is fulfilling its goal of increasing participation rates in school meal programs by eliminating the stigma associated with the existing free and reduced meal programs offered only to students from low- and moderate-income families. These students may be reluctant to participate in the free and reduced lunch program and go hungry, which can adversely impact their ability to succeed academically.
North Carolina has gotten off to a good start with the CEP initiative; however, there is more work to be done. Nearly 700 schools (across 81 school systems) are eligible but not participating in CEP this school year. This represents a significant number of additional students that are not benefiting from this initiative. (Click here to see a list of CEP-eligible, non-participating schools). The deadline for non-participating CEP-eligible schools to opt in for the upcoming school year is August 31, 2015.
Finally, supporting schools that have adopted CEP is important to the success of the initiative. These schools face unique challenges at the local level as they move to providing breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge. Support at the state level support down to support from local stakeholders can be instrumental in North Carolina becoming a model that other states look to for how to effectively address child hunger as part of a broader effort to ensure that all students are afforded a high-quality education.