Plastic trays, miniature cartons of milk and a smell that’s somewhere between tater tots and Taco Tuesdays — they all comprise the familiar staples of any school cafeteria. School meals provide a break from classes, time for kids to socialize and a necessity that many homes across Buncombe County lack — basic nutrition.
“There are many, many students across our entire service area of Western North Carolina who depend on free and reduced-priced school meals for the majority of their nutritional needs and support,” says Kara Irani, director of marketing and communications at MANNA FoodBank. “We know that many kids are going home to a kitchen that does not have enough food for everyone in the family.”
For two years during the pandemic, federal funding allowed schools to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students. But the waivers ended in 2022, forcing schools to revert to their usual system of offering free and reduced-priced lunches based on need.
Families must fill out an application to apply for assistance. Need is calculated based on household size and monthly income. Additional factors such as a child’s status as “foster, homeless, migrant or runaway” and a family’s participation in an assistance program such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also affect eligibility.
According to data released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, a four-person household making under $51,338 annually qualified for reduced-priced lunches this year and under $36,075 qualified for free lunch.
The rates coincide with federal poverty guidelines, numbers that Irani calls “abysmally low.” She says, “You really do have to be living completely in poverty to get any kind of benefit or support and that’s really, really problematic.”
The stringent regulations are especially troublesome as families across the region face inflation and record-high costs of living. Grocery bills have gone up about 11.3% since 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the cost of living in the area has increased by 12% in the past year, according to the nonprofit Just Economics of Western North Carolina.
The cost of school lunches also has gone up too. At Buncombe County Schools, the price increased in elementary schools from $2.55 per meal in 2019 to $3.50 today, and from $2.85 to $3.75 for middle and high schools, says Stacia Harris, BCS communications officer.
At Asheville City Schools, elementary school lunches jumped from $2.40 during the 2018-19 school year to $3.25 this year; middle school meals went from $2.65 to $3.50; and for high schoolers, meal costs rose from $2.65 to $4 per day. Dillon Huffman, public information officer for ACS, says the price increase is due to increased food and supply costs related “to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic.”
While BCS continues to offer free breakfasts to all students, ACS charges $1.50 per day. The numbers can add up. A student at Asheville High School who purchases breakfast and lunch daily would pay almost $1,000 over the course of the school year.
Despite rising costs, the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches in Buncombe County essentially has remained the same. The percentage has hovered around 54% for the past few years, Harris says. Numbers at ACS increased slightly with 38% of the student body qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunches during the 2019-20 school year and 41% qualifying this year.
While the federal waiver program was in place — providing universal free meals to all school-age children— a significant number of students opted for school meals. In Buncombe County, 80% of all students participated in the free meal program. Even though breakfast is still free, only about 45% of all students eat school breakfasts and 61% opt for school lunches. Lisa Payne, school nutrition director for BCS, says she doesn’t know what accounts for the drop in numbers.
At ACS, about 21% of students opt for school breakfasts, and 46% order lunches, Huffman says.
“Proper nutrition is a critical component of the educational success of our school-age children,” says Amanda Edwards, a Buncombe County commissioner.
“During COVID, millions of dollars flooded into the federally assisted school nutrition programs, and it is now disappointing to see those funds cut while families are struggling to put food on the table,” she told Xpress.
Need nearly doubles
MANNA FoodBank sees that struggle firsthand through its work providing food assistance to families and children across Western North Carolina. The number of people it serves has grown exponentially over the past few years. In 2019, MANNA served about 65,000 people a month across WNC. As of January, those numbers have nearly doubled with about 125,000 people seeking food assistance every month. Irani says partner agencies have noted a significant increase in families with small children showing up at food distribution sites and contacting the food help line.
While food insecurity affects people of all ages, it can be particularly detrimental for school-age children, impacting their development, says Irani. “Children who are food insecure have a harder time learning and focusing in school. They often have behavioral issues that they’re not able to deal with,” says Irani. “It’s very, very tough on kids directly and it’s incredibly hard on parents. The level of stress and trauma that they experience when they know that they can’t feed their children and themselves is extremely high.”
The federal free meal waiver helped alleviate some of that stress for thousands of families during the pandemic and eliminated the stigma many feel when asking for or receiving assistance, says Irani. The waiver program wasn’t the only pandemic program to be cut, leaving families in need. Last month the Food and Nutrition Services emergency assistance benefits came to an end, slashing monthly SNAP benefits by at least $95 per month per household. Families with children experienced even sharper cuts.
Patchwork of support
To ensure children have food, BCS allows students to purchase meals even when they don’t have the money. “We are working with community partners to provide donations to offset unpaid meal charges,” Payne says. “Those partners include churches and individual donors.” ACS has a similar program.
To feed children when they are not in school, the Pandemic EBT Program functions like a debit card and enables students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches to buy food during COVID-19-related absences. MANNA also offers a program called MANNA Packs, whereby students in need are provided with sacks of food to take home during weekends and school breaks.
“The numbers and the need for food continue to be a real crisis point for the neighbors that we are serving across Western North Carolina,” says Irani.
Buncombe County School Board Chair Ann Franklin says board members continue to urge area Congress members to “ensure universal lunch is a reality for all students.”
“The rising cost of everything is impacting families across our region and our state. Solving issues like food insecurity is a community effort.”
Families who need assistance are encouraged to call the MANNA food helpline: 800-820-1109. The free and reduced-priced lunch application for all schools can be found at LunchApplication.com. Applications translated into languages other than English can be found here: avl.mx/chm.