By Virginia Jicha
Last summer, North Carolina PTA began inviting our partners and members to reimagine school meals in our state. We began with a small survey of parents, a focus group, and many thoughtful and challenging conversations. We are capping the school year with a Reimagining School Meals event featuring local chefs and advocates Sean Fowler of Mandolin, Bo Peterson of Primal, Regan Stachler of Hull Foods, and Jake Wood of 18 Seaboard presenting their ideas of how healthy school meals could look.
But why are we doing this?
PTAs have been involved in school meal efforts for 100 years, starting some of the first hot lunch programs in the country and helping to establish the National School Lunch Program in 1946. We continue to advocate for higher nutrition standards in school meals and snacks, increased access to school meals for all students, and family involvement in the development, implementation and evaluation of school wellness policies.
As the state’s oldest and largest volunteer organization advocating for children, the health and wellness of children has always been one of our most important priorities. Proper nutrition is linked to improved academic performance but many North Carolina children are not receiving the nutrition they need at home. More than a third of North Carolina adolescents are obese, while 1/4 face food insecurity. Almost 60% of our students are eligible for free or reduced price school meals. For many students participating in the school meals program, these meals provide up to 50% of their daily nutrient needs.
As of December 2017, 869,954 children ate school lunch in the state, making North Carolina the seventh largest school nutrition program in the country. In spite of this, the state provides very little funding for school meals. Most school meal funding comes from the federal government; preliminary data from the USDA shows the National School Lunch Program made payments totaling $387,928,245 to North Carolina in 2017. Those funds are inadequate for what our child nutrition programs are required to provide. Because the state provides so little funding, and far less than has been requested by the Department of Public Instruction, for school meals, our child nutrition programs operate in our school systems as de facto independent businesses. Out of those federal reimbursements, the purchases made by students and other consumers, and the small amount of state funding, child nutrition programs pay for food, supplies, equipment, staffing costs, and often even indirect expenses such as the water they use.
When you combine these challenges with stringent requirements for calories, proteins, fats, whole grains, sodium, specific amounts of certain colors of vegetables, and more, the task of providing healthy and delicious meals for North Carolina’s children becomes a nearly impossible task. In this case, it’s nearly impossible to balance the proverbial books. We commend the work of child nutrition programs and workers who continue to try every school year but our members know that we can do better for our children. We believe investing in school meals is an unparalleled opportunity to invest in our economy while providing healthy meals to our children.
Agriculture, as it has been for so many years, is our largest industry. From Manteo to Murphy, North Carolina has a rich farming economy producing collard greens, sweet potatoes, and strawberries and everything in between. Many of these items make their way into our schools through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Program—almost $1,000,000 per year of North Carolina’s homegrown fruits and vegetables are featured in North Carolina schools every year through this program.
As everyone who buys food for their family knows, fresher food is often more expensive. Sometimes processed food keeps better. Sometimes it’s more convenient. Sometimes it seems easier on little palates. This is true in school foods too, where many of our farms struggle to be competitive for our buyers—our schools—who must strike a delicate balance to keep their books in the black.
School funding for local procurement is an investment in some of our most precious resources: our farms, our families, and our children. State funding for more local foods in schools is a tool that would not only help our child nutrition program more easily meet and exceed nutrition standards, but it could also help our state leverage more of the federal money for school meals locally. There is an abundance of evidence that local foods in schools have a powerful return on investment, not in far away places, but in our own communities. What would the impact on our farms, our rural communities, and our families be with a small investment from our state?
Homegrown foods. Healthy meals. Whole children. Can you imagine that North Carolina?
Virginia Jicha of Fayetteville is a public school teacher and the President of the North Carolina PTA.