In North Carolina, child hunger is an enormous problem that has yet to see substantial tangible relief.
Schools across the state have dedicated massive amounts of COVID-19 pandemic relief funds to expand school nutrition programs to every student. Many have argued this alone has begun to quell child hunger.
But in North Carolina, nearly 590,000 households do not have enough food to eat each day. Children and households with children are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. The North Carolina Justice Center reports households with children face far more difficulty putting healthy foods on the table.
Across the country, 15.7 percent of households with children are food insecure, compared to only 10.1 percent of households without children.
Pandemic relief funds are not enough to resolve child hunger — now or in the long term.
With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, schools and daycares can continue to serve free meals for every student through June 2022. These programs emphasize the availability of fruits, vegetables, milk and whole grains.
"Receiving the free or reduced-price school lunches reduces food insecurity, obesity rates, as well as poor health," registered dietician Erin Falls said in an interview with WCNC Charlotte. "So we know that all of those three items are huge issues with our nation and so this really can help with that."
Yet, federal funding for these programs is on a strict timeline, with less than five months until they expire.
North Carolina’s School Nutrition Chief Lynn Harvey pleaded with state lawmakers to push for an expansion of the school-lunch program.
"Our students deserve 'Hunger Free' schools, where all children have access to nutritious, appealing meals as part of the instructional day," she said in an interview with WRAL.
State lawmakers and opponents to these programs question whether the government should play an active role in ensuring that children across the state are well-fed. Rep. Mark Brody (R-Anson, Union) went as far to say that these programs are "government-sponsored meals."
"I go visit my food banks there, and there's a lot of food going on," he told WRAL. "Nobody's being denied anything. The idea that kids don't have access to good food — parents just need to buy it and feed it. My mother did that to me."
Other lawmakers question if giving students free food sends a wrong message about self-sufficiency.
"I just think we're leading towards a socialization that takes the responsibility away from the families," said Rep. Jaime Boles (R-Moore) in an interview with WRAL.
Despite conservative cautions, the problem of hungry children remains an urgent crisis with little being done to solve it. According to a survey conducted by Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry, six in 10 K-8 public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry because they are not getting enough to eat at home.
A majority of teachers say most or a lot of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition and a majority of teachers who see hunger as a problem believe that the problem is growing.
“I’d skip lunch to save money from the allowance my parents gave me or the money I made at my job to have enough gas money or to pay for my phone bill," Rep. Ricky Hurtado (D-Alamance) wrote in a tweet. "I remember my senior year I used that money to pay for my SAT.”
Self-sufficiency isn't the solution for N.C.'s most vulnerable populations. Federal and state funding must be expanded to provide sustainable, long-term nutritional assistance for children and their families struggling with food insecurity.
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