Nutrition director urges North Carolina lawmakers to seek extension of student free mealsFebruary 15, 2022
North Carolina’s top school nutrition official is urging the state to ask the federal government to offer free meals to all public school children throughout the entire year.
Lynn Harvey, director of North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (NCDPI) school nutrition division and district operations, said the additional meals would help curtail child hunger in North Carolina, which has worsened because of the pandemic.
“Chronic hunger and prolonged food insecurity impact a child’s physical, mental, social and emotional health and well-being and directly correlates with their classroom and academic performance,” Harvey told the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations’ Subcommittee on Use and Distribution on Federal COVID Funding on Wednesday.
North Carolina’s public K-12 schools paused in-person instruction for a year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government made school meals available to every student regardless of income. Schools would deliver meals or allow children to pick up meals.
The General Assembly allocated $75 million in COVID-19 federal relief directly to the support school nutrition program. Lawmakers said $8 million of the aid was not used or was transferred. The free federal meals policy is set to expire in June.
According to Feeding America, 1 in 5 North Carolina children face food insecurity. Harvey said nearly 60% of the state’s 1.5 million students already qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school based on their household incomes, and some districts have more than $300,000 in school-lunch debt.
“Unpaid student meal charges in prior years suggests even more students need meals at school but are unable to afford them,” Harvey said.
Harvey said North Carolina schools delivered 212 million meals to children during the first year of the pandemic. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and NCDPI spent $1.7 billion on the state’s emergency food assistance program, she said. The cost of the meals were reimbursed by the federal government. Harvey wants lawmakers to send a letter to the federal government to extend free meals and to consider forming a partnership with local governments and businesses to continue the meals.
Many members of the legislative panel opposed Harvey’s proposal. Some lawmakers were concerned about waste, saying children may be hungry because they may not like the food or are not eating it. Others argued by giving free food to each child, the state would be taking control away from parents. Lawmakers also pressed Harvey to provide more statistics and other data to support her request.
Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, pointed out Harvey said the division has payroll challenges because of the rising cost of goods and supplies and questioned how the agency would continue to manage the program.
“How do we balance that? Because it just doesn’t make sense that we would be promoting free lunch across the board permanently or for an extended period of time,” Arp said.
Over the past few months, the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations has examined the state’s use of the funds for rental assistance, unemployment and other programs. On Feb.1, the legislative panel spoke to NCDPI about learning loss resulting from the pandemic. Legislative evaluators found that most of the aid meant to address learning loss was unspent.
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