Every student at 24 different schools in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area will get free breakfast and lunch next school year thanks to an expanded federal school meals program that is just beginning to be available nationwide.
The district’s top child nutrition official told the Winston-Salem Journal that she expects participation in the district’s breakfast program to jump by 25 percent as a result of the changes, which will help speed up food lines because dining room staff won’t have to check credentials for each student seeking a free breakfast. The district served twice as many lunches as breakfasts last year, reflecting the large nationwide gap between participation in midday and morning food programs.
The two-dozen schools that will provide free meals include 19 of the 43 elementary schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools system.
Better-fed students are higher-achieving students, research shows. Students who consistently eat breakfast score more than 17 percent higher on math tests and are 20 percent more likely to graduate high school, according to No Kid Hungry. Extrapolated nationwide, those figures imply that 800,000 more kids would graduate high school if the gap between eligibility and participation in school breakfast programs was closed even halfway.
Speeding up the breakfast line will help close the gap in Winston-Salem schools, but children still face a more compressed time window to grab food before class than they do during the lunch break. To further address that basic problem, the schools that are expanding free meals to all children will also begin to allow kids to eat breakfast in the classroom. Breakfast in the Classroom programs have produced dramatic improvements in student attendance and attentiveness and significant bumps in test scores, according to a Food Research and Action Center survey of school principals last year.
In Forsyth County, a full quarter of all children live in food-insecure households that lack consistent access to sufficient food and nutrition, well above the 21.6 percent rate of child food insecurity nationwide. North Carolina’s overall poverty rate averaged 16.8 percent in the most recent three-year window of Census Bureau data, and the Republican-dominated state government has raised taxes on the poor and cut unemployment insurance as part of an effort to discourage low-income families from making North Carolina home.
The North Carolina district is the latest in a chain of schools and districts to make school meals available to all students regardless of their means. The schools in question are taking advantage of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which is only becoming available nationwide starting this summer. A pilot version of the CEP operated last school year in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and starting next month all school districts and schools nationwide may apply for the program. If at least 40 percent of students at a school are eligible for free meals, the school may join the CEP and receive federal reimbursement for the cost of providing meals to all students.
Because the program’s expansion is still in its infancy, it will be months before anyone knows just how many schools take the USDA up on its offer. But so far, schools in Dallas, New York City, Indianapolis, and Boston have already announced that they will participate in the CEP.