Thursday, July 25, 2024

Will shifting federal school lunch rules let some New Hanover students go hungry? [Free]

Over half of the region’s students rely on federally-funded free and reduced-cost school lunches. (Port City Daily photo / USDA)

WILMINGTON — Unless extended in the next two weeks, a shift in federal guidelines will mean the end of neighborhood delivery of school lunches by New Hanover County Schools. The district is working to adapt — and hoping federal waivers get extended — but at the moment it looks like the most at-risk families could end up falling through the cracks.

On September 1, the program for school lunches under the Summer Food Service Program will end, transitioning schools to the National School Lunch Program. Both are federally-funded programs that reimburse schools for providing breakfast and lunch for students — including no-cost and reduced-cost meals for low-income families.

But under the program starting next month, there will be no more food deliveries directly into communities.

This isn’t just about funding, though — it’s also about federal waivers that helped cut through the bureaucracy around school lunch programs and allowed the district to be flexible. (You can find a full list of federal waivers for North Carolina here.)

For example, the current summer program was paired with a Federal Non-Congregate Feeding waiver, which allowed for delivery, using NHCS’s buses to bring food to communities where students might not have access to transportation to travel to the nearest school for curbside pick-up.

According to the district, those waivers expire at the end of the month. Further, the program that will start next month has additional logistical requirements, including that the district verify student names or account numbers, and charge students not receiving free or reduced meals. The bottom line is that the district can longer use buses to take food to the community.

The shift, along with the sunsetting of waivers that removed some bureaucratic hurdles, means the district will only provide curbside pickup, eliminating delivery.

Over half of NHCS students rely on school lunches

New Hanover County’s levels of food insecurity are in line with the rest of the state, which has above-average food insecurity levels for the general population and children specifically. (Graph from a 2016 UNC School of Government report, data from the USDA’s research division)

For some students, this isn’t a problem. Their parents can provide transportation to pick-up meals at school, or can afford to provide breakfast and lunch on their own.

But over half of students in New Hanover County receive free or reduced-cost school lunches, and nearly one in four students struggle with food insecurity (according to a 2016 study published by the UNC School of Government).

For a household of four, a combined income of less than $33,475 qualifies students for free meals and less than $47,638 qualifies students for meals at a reduced price. Many of these families are struggling financially, often with working parents who can’t take the time off from work to drive their children to school, wait in line for a meal, and then drive them home.

And, of course, Covid-19 didn’t just close the schools, it closed businesses, putting parents out of work or reducing their hours. As the federal unemployment benefits run out, those on state unemployment — one of the most paltry in the country — will be put under even more financial pressure.

These are the families that benefit the most from reduced-cost and free meals and the ones who will be most at-risk if — or, more likely, when —lunch delivery stops.

Delivery vs. curbside

In March, non-profit groups and volunteers teamed up to get meals to kids in need — especially for families lacking transportation. (Port City Daily photo / Johanna F. Still)

The closure of North Carolina schools was, to say the least, abrupt. Districts were thrown into triage mode. While many had plans for going to a virtual model, any honest administrator will tell you there’s a world of difference between planning and doing.

Initially, as NHCS scrambled to adapt to state orders, the lunch program was set up as a curbside pick-up program based at schools. Those who understood the demographics of the county knew that would let hundreds of families fall through the cracks.

So, a coalition of over a dozen non-profit groups stepped in to deliver meals directly to kids in need. ‘Operation Ring and Run,’ as it was dubbed, was basically contactless delivery for school lunches. On one of the first days, volunteers brought food to roughly 900 students.

Related: For two weeks, the school system offered pick-up only meals. A network of volunteers delivered thousands. [Free read]

Two weeks later, NHCS stepped up its operation, delivering to 48 community centers and expanding the number of pick-up locations, bringing as much food as close as possible to those in need. NHCS worked with volunteer groups to help limit redundancy, to make sure that the combined efforts of the district and volunteers were as efficient as it could be.

Almost half a year later, and the pandemic still has schools shuttered and the shift in federal programs will effectively end the district’s community food deliveries.

Now what?

Hope, plan, action

Earlier this year, volunteers came together to help feed students in need — they may need to organize again, for longer, in the coming months. (Port City Daily photo / Johanna F. Still)

According to an NHCS spokesperson, “the district is aware that this is an issue for many parents in the communities served by the neighborhood bus distribution.”

NHCS is “still hopeful that the Summer Food Service Program and non-congregate feeding site waivers will be extended to allow that service to continue,” according to a spokesperson.

In the meantime, the district is re-expanding the number of curbside pick-up locations from nine to 44 “to try to address the needs of families and communities that we can no longer serve by bus delivery.” NHCS is working with communities to try and make the most of these walk-up sites, according to a spokesperson. In addition, North Carolina is continuing to allow free meals for those who usually fall into the reduced-rate category, the district noted.

If the current guidelines aren’t extended, and NHCS loses the ability to deliver food, the task will likely fall to the region’s nonprofit sector.

Many of the same groups that helped bridge the gaps in March are prepared to help, but the challenge involves more uncertainty this time around. It’s not clear what the federal government will do next and, more importantly, it’s not clear how long the Covid-19 pandemic will continue.

As NourishNC Executive Director Steve McCrossan put it, “We want to help, that’s the bottom line, but if we commit to something it has to be for the long haul — back in March none of us were thinking that Covid would last this long.”

McCrossan and other non-profits, including the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, the Cape Fear Food Council, and others are working on contingency plans to keep getting meals to families in need.

McCrossan said that, despite the challenges of Covid-19, he and his fellow volunteer groups see it as an opportunity for leadership, at NHCS, the county, and elsewhere.

It’s something of a refrain in the Covid era: the pandemic has created new issues, for sure, but it’s also highlighted deeper, more longstanding problems. Childhood food insecurity predated the pandemic and it will be around when the pandemic subsides. Whether or not local leaders can find new ways to tackle the root issues remains to be seen.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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