Education leaders urge lawmakers to continue free meals for K-12 students

School nutrition staff feed children at Southwest Elementary School in 2020.

Hungry children can’t learn, NC Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said Wednesday.

Kelly’s comment came during a noon press conference held to urge state lawmakers to pass two bills to provide the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students with free breakfast and lunch.

State funding is needed because a federal pandemic-era program that has funded free school breakfast and lunch since March 2020 will expire June 30 unless Congress takes action to keep it afloat.

“As educators, we know first-hand that hungry students can’t learn,” Kelly said. “Extending the free breakfast and lunch program gives students and families some peace of mind that kids will have reliable, healthy meals every day.”

Tamika Walker Kelly (Left) and Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (Right)

Kelly said that North Carolina is ranked 8th in childhood poverty and one in five kids is food insecure. Over half of North Carolina students are eligible for free or reduced meals, she said.

Data provided by NC Child, a nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to kids’ success, show that 17.9% of the state’s children live in poverty and that 20% live in households that are food insecure.

Senate Bill 855 and Senate Bill 856 would require the NC Department of Public Instruction to allocate money for school breakfast and lunch at no cost.

“We can’t wait for Congress to act,” Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, the Mecklenburg County Democrat who sponsored the bills. “We have the power, and the funding available in North Carolina to extend this crucial program for K-12 students in the next school year.”

Mohammed wants the bills included in budget technical corrections next week.

“Food insecurity for students has been a chronic problem, even before the pandemic,” Mohammed said. “Now, with the rising cost of food, that crisis is far from over.

US Representative Alma Adams, a Charlotte Democrat, fought to keep the federal program alive last week, telling congressional colleagues that millions of children will go hungry if the program expires, the Charlotte Observer reported.

“Even as the pandemic continues and food prices are on the rise, these waivers are set to expire,” Adams said. “As a 40-year educator, I know hunger has been a crisis in our schools and our communities since long before the pandemic.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis have urged US Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis to support legislation to keep the federal program in place.

“The loss of these waivers will devastate school meal programs and threaten their sustainability,” Truitt and Davis wrote in a letter to the senators dated June 10. “School meals will be jeopardized for thousands of North Carolina students who depend upon them as their primary source of food during the week. ”

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