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Editorial: Lunch money for schools

At $2 or so per student per meal, school lunches are one of the best bargains around, combining well-balanced nutrition with a modest price. But for families who are dealing with unemployment, rising medical and energy bills or other financial hardships, even those prices can be a stretch, especially if a family is trying to provide for two or more children.
For such families, the free or discounted school lunch program is a vital lifeline. Nationwide, the program serves more than 30 million students, according to federal figures; some of those students also may benefit from free or reduced cost breakfasts, which are served to about 10 million children in America each day.
In Rowan County and around the nation, those numbers are rising ó evidence of the tough economic times that are straining many community safety nets. As Libby Post, director of child nutrition for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, told the Post in a story published Monday, “It means our services are needed now more than ever.” However, the rising demand comes at a cost for this school system and others. The increase in the number of those seeking assistance is taxing school systems’ abilities to balance their own lunch budgets, especially as they face increasing costs for food commodities, transportation and staff.
Typically, school nutrition programs are primarily funded through revenue from regular lunch sales and federal grants. North Carolina is among only a handful of states that do not feed state tax dollars into school lunch programs. For instance, Georgia schools received $35 million in state funding for the current school year, while Virginia allotted $17 million for child nutrition.
School nutrition advocates have lobbied for North Carolina to provide supplemental nutrition funding. Before this year’s short session, they had hoped the state might come through ó especially since the legislature recently passed a law authorizing the state school board to set nutritional standards for school lunches. But faced with fears of revenue shortfalls, state budget writers decided to keep local nutrition programs on a strict diet. After the state board initially asked for $20 million to help comply with the new nutrition standards, the N.C. House approved $4 million, which the Senate cut in half. Ultimately, the state budget allotted no money for the programs.
This unfunded food mandate needs to be reconsidered. For many children, school meals may be their main source of sound nutrition. Health experts note that undernutrition and unhealthy diets can have pernicious effects on a child’s development, including lower cognitive skills and increased susceptibility to illness. With more than half of Rowan-Salisbury students participating in this program, it has a far-reaching impact. State legislators have recognized the importance of school nutritional programs. They also need to recognize that helping local school systems pay for them is a healthy way to invest in education and our children’s future.

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