Prosperity Watch Issue 40, No.1 : Universal school meal programs ensure children are fed and ready to learn

More than 1.5 million students will enter public K-12 classrooms around North Carolina for the upcoming 2014-15 school year. Around 56 percent of these students are from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunch (up from 48 percent in 2008). Ensuring that children show up in classrooms each day fed and ready to learn play an important role in ensuring that all North Carolina students are afforded a quality education.

One in five American schoolchildren can’t count on getting enough nutritious food at home, which can have a negative impact on a student’s academic performance and development. For the upcoming school year, the nation-wide Community Eligibility Program (CEP) allows high-poverty North Carolina schools to eliminate collecting school meal applications and offer breakfast and lunch to all of their students at no charge. This initiative aims to increase participation rates in school breakfast and lunch programs by eliminating the stigma associated with the existing free and reduced meal programs offered to students from low- and moderate-income families.

Schools in other states that have already implemented free breakfast and lunch programs for all students in high-poverty schools have experienced positive outcomes. In schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that adopted CEP for two years, daily lunch participation rose 13 percent. Daily breakfast participation in these schools rose 25 percent. A recent Herald Sun article highlighting Durham Public Schools’ (DPS) universal breakfast program notes that national data show that school districts that provide universal breakfast programs at no cost to students have higher test scores, fewer disciplinary problems and more focused students.


At least 36 school systems across North Carolina have confirmed their plans to adopt CEP for the upcoming school year (see map above). Some local school boards plan to adopt CEP district-wide while others will offer a universal meal program in selected schools within their district. Many of the school systems that will adopt universal meal programs are located in economically distressed areas across the state – eastern and western parts of North Carolina. Providing nutritious meals to all children attending public schools in these high-poverty areas represents a promising effort to end childhood hunger and ensure these students are fed and ready to learn.


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