Following the expiration of a pandemic-era federal waiver that allowed K-12 schools to provide school meals free of charge to all students, a new survey from the National Center for Education indicates that many school nutrition programs are facing lower participation rates.
Between March and October 2022, the percentage of public schools with more than half of students participating in school meals dropped from 84% to 69%. Schools reported other challenges, including convincing parents to submit applications for free- or reduced-price meals (34%), staffing shortages (32%), and increased program costs (29%).
Research points to a variety of benefits that school meals can support, including a reduction in food insecurity, improved dietary intake, and improved health metrics. Improving participation in school meals also strengthens school nutrition programs, who largely depend on per-meal reimbursement funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover staffing, food purchases, and kitchen equipment.
The Carolina Hunger Initiative announced on Dec. 7 that it is providing two school districts — Craven County Schools and Wilson County Schools — with grants to kickstart out-of-the-box ideas that will aim to increase participation in school meals programs.