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Jackson County becomes latest school in NC to increase cost of meals for students for upcoming year 

The current nationwide labor shortage and surging cost of food, paired with new laws taking effect in teh state have forced school districts across North Carolina to increase the cost of meals for the upcoming school year. 

The federal meal-cost relief program—which extended free meals to all students and gave schools and students more meal delivery options at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—expired on June 30. Although there is a bipartisan bill to extend the program sitting in the U.S. Senate, school nutrition departments are grappling with how to cover rising costs to avoid a bailout from school districts.

The Jackson County Board of Education voted unanimously to increase the cost of meals for the school system.

The new policy calls for one price for all grades from pre-K through 12th grade. Beginning this fall the cost will be $3.75 for lunch and $2 for breakfast.

The expansion of a key federal meal-cost relief program—which extended free meals to all students and gave schools and students more meal delivery options at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—is scheduled to expire June 30. While a bipartisan bill to extend the program sits in the U.S. Senate, school nutrition departments are grappling with how to cover rising costs to avoid a bailout from school districts.

New laws such as the requirement for food services to pay wage increases for state-funded employees, if they have them, paired with some districts already having to pay more than the minimum to lure applicants is just one mandate leading to the increase in meal costs. Lawmakers also recently doubled a requirement for school food services to keep a cash reserve capable of funding two months of operations, or else school systems can’t bill the services departments for the costs they cover, such as water.

Those new laws alongside record inflation, an estimated 40% for most food items, has strapped local district budgets. 

Macon County Schools approved the 2022-23 meal prices during the May meeting. For Pre-K through 4th grade, meals will cost $3.75 and for 5th-12th grade they will cost $3.85, which amounts to an average increase of $1 per meal compared to the pre-pandemic prices. Macon County Schools plans to continue providing free breakfast where eligible through the Community Eligibility Provision, a meal service option specifically for low-income areas. 

In order for a school to qualify, at least 40% of students have to either be on food stamps, homeless, migrant, in foster care, or a runaway. 

Prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, about 76% of public-school students in the United States received free or reduced-cost meals at school. In Macon County, just over 55% of students qualified. In Jackson County, around 50% of students qualified. 

Rural districts aren’t the only ones struggling to balance the budget. Last month some of the largest districts in the state started increasing meal costs: 

Wake County Public School System is raising prices of all meals by $0.25, to $3 or $3.25 for lunch and $1.50 or $1.75 for breakfast, depending on the school level.

Durham Public Schools is raising lunches from $2.90 to $3.75 per meal. Breakfasts are free and will remain free in Durham Public Schools.

Johnston County Schools is raising meal prices by $0.70 to $0.90 per meal, to $2.50 for breakfast, and $3 to $3.50 for lunch, depending on the school level.

Harnett County Schools raised the price of most meals by $0.50 and by $0.40 for 6th through 12th-grade lunch. They’re now $1.50 for breakfast and $2.75 for lunch for kindergarten through 5th grades and $2.75 for breakfast and $3 for lunch for 6th through 12th grades.

The North Carolina budget, which is currently waiting for Governor Roy Cooper’s signature, includes $3.9 million to cover the copays for students that qualify for reduced-price lunches in the upcoming school year. While that helps students from families with incomes between 130% to185% of the poverty level, it leaves no assistance for the families who don’t meet that criteria. In SY 2021-22, a family of four earning $34,450 or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $49,025 or less is eligible for reduced price meals. 

School meal programs have always operated on extremely tight budgets, and pandemic school closures and financial losses left many programs on shaky ground. USDA data shows that in the first full year of the pandemic (Mar. 2020 – Feb. 2021), schools served 2.2 billion fewer meals compared to the prior year, equating to a $2.3 billion loss in federal revenue. SNA surveys indicate 54% of school meal programs reported a financial loss in SY 2019/20, and 38% incurred a net loss for SY 2020/21 (an additional 12% were unsure of losses). 

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