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Orange County Schools reflects on funding, quality of school meals

The North Carolina state budget permanently eliminated the reduced-price lunch copay, allowing students to receive school meals for free. OCS is working to incorporate more fresh fruits, local foods and from-scratch cooking.

The North Carolina state budget, which passed on Sept. 22, permanently eliminated the reduced-price lunch copay, meaning students who qualify for reduced-price school meals will now receive them for free. Orange County Schools child nutrition director Sara Pitts said this state funding is helpful but inflation has raised the costs of food and labor, making it difficult for OCS to profit from school meals.

“We have to be very, very, very conscientious about our purchases because everything is on a very tight budget,” Pitts said.

Pitts said OCS is working to incorporate more fresh fruits, local foods and from-scratch cooking, but that those additions are dependent on cost. She also said OCS is working through recipes with the district’s registered dietitian to see how they can cook more meals in-house. 

Marianne Weant, programs manager at the North Carolina Alliance for Health has five children in the Wake County Public School System who eat school meals every day. 

“I would love to see school meals be more adequately funded so that the child nutrition workers can engage in more creativity and more scratch cooking,” Weant said.

Pitts said OCS aims to tailor their food options to student preferences while meeting federal school nutrition guidelines. Along with those two important factors, she said they have to consider cost. 

“If there's something that's trending that a restaurant is selling, and it's a hot ticket item, then we want to try to mirror that and make it as healthy as an option in our school setting as we can,” she said. 

For example, OCS students have the option of choosing a bento box, which is a combination of items in one container for students to grab-and-go. Pitts said this mirrors pre-packaged foods like Lunchables, allowing OCS to serve popular foods within a budget.

Pitts also said the OCS incorporates taste-testing when piloting new items. At breakfast or lunch, they sometimes set up a table with bite-sized samples of their new recipe to gauge student response.

“It's a great way to connect with the kids, to say, ‘Okay, if you don't like it, is it a simple change of texture? Is it adding a different ingredient and herb, something to give it a different flavor?’” Pitts said. “It's a great way for them to give their input.”

Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, UNC associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, said another issue public schools have to consider are the federal school nutrition guidelines, which she said need to be updated. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has been updated in 2015 and 2020, but school nutrition standards have not been updated to reflect those recommendations. 

The federal school nutrition standards from 2010 require grain-based foods to be “whole grain rich,” meaning they must contain 50 percent whole grains, but Haynes-Maslow says this is not enough.

She said there are also workarounds to the fruit and vegetable guideline, which require students to take an eighth-cup serving of fruits or vegetables. For example, Lunchables — which are now being served in some North Carolina schools — have changed their ingredients to fit under school nutrition requirements, and the tomato sauce in their pizza product counts as the eighth-cup serving of a vegetable.

“If we only know a student is going to get one meal a day, why wouldn't we want to make that be the healthiest meal possible?” Haynes-Maslow said.

Erin Riney, executive director for the hunger relief organization PORCH, works on a program that provides snacks to students who face food insecurity in Chapel Hill and Carrboro in order to help them concentrate and get through the school day. 

“I think they feel a little unseen for struggling with food insecurity because there is such affluence in our area,” she said.

Weant said the permanent elimination of the reduced-price lunch copay is an important step but more funding should come from the state to expand access to free meals.

She said the state should fund free meals for all students to reduce the shame and stigma that children face when accessing free or reduced-price meals. Eight states have implemented free meals legislation for the 2023-24 school year. 

@DTHCityState |

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