It’s that time of year when families gather to give thanks for the good things in their lives. But some families will struggle to do more than put a full holiday meal on the table. They’ll also have a hard time paying for their children to eat at school all year.
As a single mother of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools graduate who received free meals in school for a while, I know firsthand that receiving nutritious meals in school brings stability and peace of mind to children and their guardians.
We can spread that peace of mind simply by making school meals free for all children. And now a Mecklenburg County legislator has introduced a bill that would take us a step in that direction.
First, here’s some background on school lunches that may surprise you.
For a start, half of our children in public schools already rely on subsidized school lunches. In North Carolina, 58 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Nearly half (48.6 percent) of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ 143,000 students receive free meals.
While the school system doesn’t keep track of the race or ethnicity of students who receive free or reduced meals, it’s safe to assume that many students in the CMS program are minorities. Black and Hispanic students make up 63 percent of the CMS student population.
This may also surprise some. Public school initiatives to ensure students don’t go hungry are nothing new in America. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provided low-cost or free lunches to children in public and non-profit private schools each school day.
In the first year, about 7.1 million children participated in the NSLP. According to the latest statistics from the federal government, 30 million children now receive free or reduced-cost lunch.
The School Breakfast Program is another story. The federal government only began offering free breakfast to children in 1966 — launching a small pilot program that served children in a few rural communities. It wasn’t until 1975 that a more robust free breakfast program expanded to all students across the country who lived below the poverty level.
What inspired the change?
“For some scholars, widespread free breakfast (programs) didn’t begin with the federal government but rather with radical actions from the Black Panther Party,” writes Arielle Milkman in an Eater article.
To address the needs of children in the community, the Black Panthers started the Free Breakfast for Children Program in 1969 in the basement of a church in Oakland, California. By 1971, at least 36 cities in the country had a Panthers’ breakfast program.
“In a 1969 U.S. Senate hearing, the National School Lunch Program administrator admitted that the Panthers fed more poor school children than did the State of California,” says Diane Pien in BlackPast.org.
The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program fed tens of thousands of hungry kids until the mid-1970s. It appears that the Panthers’ breakfast program helped to inspire a robust federal free breakfast program today.
More recently we’ve proven that free meals in schools can be a safety net for all children.
When the Covid pandemic started in 2020, all K-12 students in the U.S., no matter their income status, received free breakfast and lunch. After that provision expired in August, most families again had to apply for free meals.
The circumstances are a bit different in CMS. Since 2012, breakfast has been made available to all students at no charge. In addition, roughly 39 percent of the schools continue to receive free breakfast and lunch as part of the federal Community Eligibility Provision program.
Providing free meals to all students would avoid three significant problems:
- It would bring an end to students being shamed for receiving free meals. There are hundreds of stories about children being singled out negatively because they couldn’t afford school meals. One reader told Buzzfeed of being made to serve meals to classmates when they didn’t have lunch money, before they were given lunch. No child should be treated differently because they can’t pay for school meals.
- Parents would no longer be anxious over how to fill out invasive application forms correctly, or worry their children didn’t qualify, even though their family is low income.
- More children would grow up to be able-bodied citizens. Malnurishment has been identified as a threat to national security. The Council for a Strong America said in its 2020 report on child nutrition that 71 percent of young Americans are ineligible to join the military, and one of the main reasons is malnutrition.
North Carolina Democratic Rep. Carolyn Logan, whose district covers part of Mecklenburg County, has a solution.
In May, Logan introduced a bill (H.B. 1074) that would require the state to “allocate sufficient funds to public school units to provide free lunch for every student (in the state) electing to receive it.” According to Logan, the initiative would cost $159 million per year and would come from the state’s general fund.
That’s less than half as much as it will cost to add express lanes to a section of I-485 in South Charlotte. The total yearly state general fund budget is $27 billion for 2022.
Logan’s bill will allow students to have nutritious meals at school and help them “concentrate on their education and not how hungry they may be,” she said. “The main purpose behind (the bill) is to help North Carolina families raise their children. It’s about caring about people.”
I urge you to call or write to your state representatives today and demand that this needed legislation become law.