School meal costs are skyrocketing, and some NC students may go hungry

Inflation and the expiration of pandemic-era subsidies are leading to pricier school lunches and potentially tens of millions fewer meals for North Carolina children who qualify for assistance.

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School lunch
Emily Walkenhorst
, WRAL education reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — New state laws, a labor crunch and the surging cost of food, delivery services, lunch trays and other cafeteria supplies are causing school districts to raise meal costs just as key expansions of government meal assistance programs are due to expire.

As a result, tens of thousands of North Carolina students could receive millions fewer free meals in the coming summer alone. And those who don’t qualify for free or subsidized meals are bracing for sticker shock in the fall. Some families could pay hundreds of dollars more for school meals. Those who go hungry could see declines in classroom performance.

The expansion of a key federal meal-cost relief program—which extended free meals to all students and gave schools and students more meal delivery options at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—is scheduled to expire June 30. While a bipartisan bill to extend the program sits in the U.S. Senate, school nutrition departments are grappling with how to cover rising costs to avoid a bailout from school districts.

Several area school systems—including those in Wake, Durham and Johnston counties—are raising school meal prices. And more are considering increases.

“All of these issues are going to make it more complicated for families to be able to assure that their children get access to these meals,” said Tamara Baker, project and communications director at the Carolina Hunger Initiative.

‘No longer affordable’

The expanded federal program enabled free meals to all students, regardless of income, and reduced barriers to summer meal programs in lower-income communities. Those reduced barriers helped 100,000 to 200,000 more North Carolina children who already qualified for free summer meals access them than ever before.

Universal free meals have been helpful for Abby Ratliff and her family of five, who live in Durham on one income and won’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals next year.

“To say we don’t have to worry about paying for lunch would be a huge help,” Ratliff said.

The end of free meals for their rising first grader will coincide with Ratliff’s husband starting radiography classes at Wake Tech in the fall, after years of staying at home to save money on child care.

The change, intended to lead to more income down the road, will push their two youngest daughters, 3 years old and 18 months old, into daycare. That will cost a couple thousand dollars per month, or at least one-third of Ratliff’s income as a nurse. The Ratliffs already purchase their clothing and much of their furniture second-hand. They have canceled subscriptions and removed their oldest from gymnastics. They’ve earned extra money from side gigs, like babysitting.

“The numbers aren't adding up once we have the two kids in daycare,” Ratliff said. “So that is something a little scary to think about.”

States and child advocacy groups are calling on Congress to extend the emergency policies or even make them permanent.

“Legislators did not get the memo that the world has not returned to normal,” said Tamara Baker, project and communications director at the Carolina Hunger Initiative. “And that normal is no longer affordable.”

Programs end as costs rise

When the federal meal-assistance program was extended, the government made meals more accessible by offering delivery services. During the low-income summer program alone, that led to a six-fold increase in meals distributed, up to 23 million more meals. When the extension expires, the delivery service will go away.

Rising gas costs have experts concerned that not as many students will be able to make the trip to their school each day to eat, especially in more rural areas with longer commutes.

School nutrition services departments’ struggles to keep meal prices down are in part related to the unique function of child nutrition services departments.

Nutrition services departments are, essentially, some of the biggest restaurants in the state, operating independently within the public education system but still in a nonprofit fashion. They’re funded based on the meals they sell, not by a line item in a school system budget.

Still, their financial viability can affect their local school system. If nutrition services departments can’t cover their operating costs, school systems have to float the cost until they’re paid back.

The expiration of the federal program expansion will also reduce federal free meal reimbursements for schools.

Covering rising costs is becoming more of a challenge.

State lawmakers are requiring food services to pay wage increases for state-funded employees, if they have them. And some districts are having to pay more than the minimum to lure applicants. And lawmakers recently doubled a requirement for school food services to keep a cash reserve capable of funding two months of operations, or else school systems can't bill the services departments for the costs they cover, such as water.

Then there’s inflation. Some food items have increased by up to 40%, according to Lynn Harvey, director of school nutrition services at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Delivery costs have tripled, she said. Trays, which used to cost 10 cents each, are now as high as $1.

DPI officials don’t expect prices to return to normal until 2025.

School food services divisions are crunching the numbers, doing a delicate dance. If they raise meal prices too high, more students might opt to brown bag it, canceling out revenue growth expected from price increases.

In recent weeks, at least six area school systems have approved raising school meal prices.

  • Wake County Public School System is raising prices of all meals by $0.25, to $3 or $3.25 for lunch and $1.50 or $1.75 for breakfast, depending on the school level.
  • Durham Public Schools is raising lunches from $2.90 to $3.75 per meal. Breakfasts are free and will remain free in Durham Public Schools.
  • Johnston County Schools is raising meal prices by $0.70 to $0.90 per meal, to $2.50 for breakfast and $3 to $3.50 for lunch, depending on the school level.
  • Roanoke Rapids Graded School District is raising prices from $1 to $1.25 for breakfast, $2 to $2.75 for elementary school lunch, and $2.25 to $3 for middle and high school lunch.
  • Granville County Schools is raising the price of all meals by $0.10, to $1.10 for breakfast and $2.60 for lunch for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and to $1.35 for breakfast and $2.85 for lunch for sixth- through 12th-grade students.
  • Harnett County Schools raised the price of most meals by $0.50 and by $0.40 for 6th through 12th grade lunch. They’re now $1.50 for breakfast and $2.75 for lunch for kindergarten through 5th grades and $2.75 for breakfast and $3 for lunch for 6th through 12th grades.
  • Franklin County Schools officials say they may need to raise prices by $0.10 per paid meal. The school system expects to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars more next year for delivery, labor and milk, snacks and beverages.

Making ends meet

Ratliff’s scenario illustrates the dilemma for school systems that raise prices.

With school lunch prices up in Durham, she’s considering alternatives, which means the school system will likely lose a customer.

But that decision requires its own special calculus for Ratliff.

She plans on making lunches for her first-grader. But inflation has made that a more expensive proposition.

“It's been shocking how much our grocery bill has changed,” Ratliff said.

She wants to avoid tapping into the family’s savings, so she made a spreadsheet of all of the food pantries in her area, with locations and hours open, in case the family ends up needing them.

“Our kid will not be hungry,” Ratliff said. But she worries about other children, particularly those who live closer to the reduced-price cutoff or qualified students whose parents haven’t applied for free or subsidized meals.

Many families don’t apply for free and reduced-price school meals, in part because they or their children don’t want anyone to know they need the benefits.

Research shows that students perform better in the classroom when they have enough to eat during the day.

About one in five North Carolina children—close to 400,000—don’t get enough food, according to Feeding America.

And about 30% of North Carolina children who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals don’t participate in the program, according to data analyzed by Carolina Hunger Initiatives and No Kid Hungry NC. Those 250,000 students instead paid for meals, until the temporary rules made them free.

Now, they’ll have to pay again and, in some places, where school systems are raising meal prices.

“We are very concerned many students will fall through the cracks,” Harvey, the DPI school nutrition director, told the State Board of Education this month.

“But there’s really no other option to keep the programs sustainable,” she said.

On Friday, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis sent letters for Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, urging them to support the bill to extend the school meal flexibilities of the past two years.

"Superintendents and school nutrition directors are doing their best to recover from pandemic conditions, but it will take more time for the marketplace to rebound and for the current economy to stabilize," they wrote. Continuing the flexibilities for another year "is critical to ensure children have access to nutritious school meals, to support program sustainability and to prevent substantial financial losses for schools in our state."

Olivia Oxendine, a member of the state board, recalled the stigma children on free and reduced-price lunch faced when she attended public schools in Robeson County. Those students were placed in the back of the classroom, and ate their meals there, too.

“We do not charge families a fee to be transported to school,” Oxendine said. “Why do we not find a way to give them food without cost?”


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