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Low-income kids can face stigma around school lunch. Here's how the state budget might help.

Students Kamora Foxworth, left, and Odyessi McDougald, center, smile while they eat lunch at Southside-Ashpole Elementary on the first week of school as the elementary becomes the first in the state's Innovative School District.
Liz Schlemmer
File photo of students Kamora Foxworth and Odyessi McDougald eating lunch at Southside-Ashpole Elementary, in Robeson County, Aug. 2018.

High school English teacher Leah Carper knows from experience just how important an affordable lunch is for her students.

When she was a child, she qualified for free lunch. In high school, she received it for the reduced price of 40 cents a day, which remains the subsidized price today. Every morning, she put a quarter, a dime and a nickel in her back pocket to pay for lunch.

“I remember carrying it in my pocket and holding it tight, because I knew how important it was that I had that money – but I also didn't want anyone to know how much money I had,” Carper says.

Carper tried to keep the fact that she qualified for a reduced price lunch hidden from her classmates. For decades, the federal government has offered free or reduced price meals to students from low-income families.

“Well, one day I dropped my money on the ground as I was handing it to the lady in the lunch line, and they fell everywhere,” Carper says.“I scooped it up so fast, and I was so embarrassed. I handed the lunch lady the money, and the boy standing behind me said, ‘Hey, she didn't give you enough money. She only had like 40 cents. She owes you more money.’"

2022 NC Teacher of the Year Leah Carper meets with First Lady Jill Biden at the White House. Carper says other educators at the meeting encouraged her to speak up about her advocacy for federally funded free school meals for all.
Leah Carper
Submitted Image
2022 NC Teacher of the Year Leah Carper meets with First Lady Jill Biden at the White House. Carper says other educators at the meeting encouraged her to speak up about her advocacy for federally funded free school meals for all.
Leah Carper
Submitted Image
Leah Carper toasts a carton of milk during a school lunch with students during a school visit when she was the 2022 NC Teacher of the Year.

“I was completely shocked, terrified, humiliated, shamed," she said. "The lunch lady looked at me, and she looked at him and she said, ‘No, actually, that's not true. Leah gave me too much money. Here's your change.’”

Carper describes this as one of her core memories. That small act of kindness encouraged her to become an educator. She went on to become the 2022 North Carolina Teacher of the Year, and has spent some of that time advocating for free school meals for all kids.

Carper even had the chance to speak to First Lady Jill Biden about the importance of federal funding for school meals on a recent trip to the White House.

What she and other advocates hope for is free school meals for all students, without income requirements. That might sound like a big undertaking, but it’s exactly what the federal government provided during the pandemic. For two years, students nationwide received free meals, but that policy expired last summer.

“It was a great equalizer. Students didn't have to worry about being fed,” Carper says.

State lawmakers look to fill in gaps after federal funding ended

“There was a lot of hope that the program would continue, and unfortunately, it didn't,” says Morgan Wittman Gramann with School Meals for All NC.

With that federal funding expired, now state lawmakers are considering whether to include funding in the next state budget to help more students afford lunch.

This past school year, the state provided funds for North Carolina students who qualify for reduced price lunch to get it for free – but that was one-time funding, meaning it ends this coming fall unless state lawmakers take action in the next state budget.

“We're very hopeful that the General Assembly will see how big of an impact that had and how important that is and continue that funding in this year's budget,” Wittman Gramann says.

Courtesy of Free School Meals for All NC
A promotional flyer from School Meals for All NC explaining the benefits of free school meals.

The Senate's proposed budget included $3 million to cover the co-pay for reduced-price eligible students, but the House budget does not. House lawmakers instead proposed $7.8 million in funding to pay off students’ meal debt – the debt students accrue when they can’t pay for their lunch.

North Carolina students accrued $3.1 million in school lunch debt in the first semester of last school. That was after the federally-funded free meals ended, but even with the additional state funding for reduced price meals in place.

“I think we need to be considering this conversation that we're having about elementary school students accruing debt, because they went and they tried to get food,” Wittman Gramann says.

Representative Jeffrey Elmore (R- Wilkes) says House leaders are discussing school meals with the Senate during ongoing budget negotiations.

“There have been various proposals to approaching this issue. I believe there will be some solutions at the end of the budget process,” Elmore said in a statement to WUNC.

Leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly are expected to reach a compromise on the state budget later this summer.

Universal free meals help reduce stigma and improve student outcomes

Thad Domina is a professor at the UNC School of Education who has studied the effects of a federal program that funds free school lunches for all students at high-poverty schools. The community eligibility program reimburses schools for all meals if the school has a high concentration of students who qualify for federal food benefits.

He says researchers have documented many positive effects when schools do provide free lunch to all students.

“On average, kids' achievement improves. On average, kids' attendance approves, and most importantly — and most notably — kids’ chances of being suspended, suspension rates improved,” Domina said.

Domina says those effects might be because fewer students go hungry, and there's less social division between them.

“When school meals are associated with poverty, students who could use the meals often don't take them up because they want to avoid the label associated with being a free meal student,” he explained.

Leah Carper
Submitted Image
2022 NC Teacher of the Year Leah Carper visits an elementary school cafeteria.

Domina says providing free meals for all students is an evidence-based way to improve student outcomes — and is the ideal many advocates hope for from the federal government — but the state's recent funding to offer free lunch to reduced-price eligible students might also help.

“When you take away this difference between free and reduced price, you simplify things in the lunchroom just a little bit, and that little bit can make a difference,” Domina said.

It's one small way to reduce stigma in the lunchroom. Leah Carper thinks back to how she felt in the lunch line that day she dropped her 40 cents.

“Being a teenager is hard enough without having to feel this frustration or shame or fear that people are going to judge you based on something that you just can't even control,” Carper said. "I can't control my family's financial situation."

“But what adults now can do is they can control this,” Carper said. “They can find a way to feed every kid.”

Carper and others are looking to state lawmakers to see what they do in the next state budget.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org