A majority of North Carolina parents lack the financial resources to provide school lunches for their children without assistance, according to federal data, a situation that has worsened in recent years.
Most children in North Carolina participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price school lunches to families facing financial hardship. In the 2016-17 school year, 59.8 percent of public school students in the state received lunches through this program, according to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the level of participation a decade earlier.
Projections from North Carolina public school administrators for the 2018-19 school year show that a high percentage of students will continue to benefit from the program, provided they apply, which they must do each year.
While some parents make a conscious decision not to participate in the lunch program despite being eligible, school nutrition experts across the state told Carolina Public Press that lack of knowledge about the program or forgetting to reapply are the biggest reasons that children miss out on the meals.
“One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is that parents don’t know that they have to reapply every year for the free and reduced lunch program,” said Rebecca Bryan, an administrator with Child Nutrition Services for the Wake County Public School System.
The school district in Wake County is the largest in the state. Its percentage of students enrolled in the program largely reflects the same ratio as the state as a whole. All parents of students in the district are sent information at the beginning of every school year about how to apply for free or reduced-price school lunches.
“It’s really easy to apply online,” Bryan said. “If they don’t apply before the start of the school year, their child only receives a couple of day’s worth of free lunch before they’re served alternative meals mainly consisting of just fruits and vegetables. I really urge all of the parents that need it to apply.”