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Schools fight food insecurity


Kathy Kolasa


Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Q — A few weeks ago, I wrote an article outlining some of the efforts that Pitt County Schools is making to combat school lunch shaming practices. I learned a lot about the Child Nutrition Program that I didn’t know and I think is important to share. — Frank Hernandez, Greenville

A — Frank, you are right. I hope your report below will encourage families that are not taking advantage of the Child Nutrition Programs will do so. And I hope all of us will support the Child Nutrition Program and its staff who are working hard to help students eat healthy and be ready to learn. In today’s political environment, even these programs that promote healthful diets and active lifestyles for our next generation are challenged. It’s Valentine’s Day, and we want to tell Pitt County Child Nutrition employees how much we love them! Here is what Frank wants you to know.

It has become apparent to me that lunch shaming practices are a direct consequence of a deeper problem at hand — food insecurity. The truth is that there are families who cannot afford to pay for their child’s school meals, and lunch shaming practices are intended to pressure these families into paying. So why not address the root of the problem instead, food insecurity?

In my meeting with Leann Seelman, child nutrition administrator for Pitt County Schools, I inquired about the approach that Pitt County School Nutrition Services is taking to ensure that no child in our community goes hungry. Families need to know that there are free or reduced lunches available. Family circumstances change, so any family can apply at any point throughout the school year. If approved, their children will receive either free or discounted meal prices. There is extra help for low-wealth schools.

The Community Eligibility Provision, a key provision of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, is available at certain schools in high-poverty areas. All students, regardless of family income, can receive free breakfast and lunch. With CEP, there is no required application from parents. CEP is implemented at 16 of the 37 Pitt County Schools, six more schools than last year. Seelman assured me that her team is working closely with eligible schools to apply for this program and is hopeful more will adopt CEP in the future.

In another effort to combat food insecurity among school-aged children, a free summer meal program is offered at 16 strategically selected sites throughout the county. Free lunch is served at all sites, and free breakfast is served at most sites to anyone age 18 and younger. These meals meet the nationally mandated nutrition guidelines and feature many of the same nutritious foods that are popular with students during the academic school year.

School Nutrition Services is also keeping meals affordable. It takes about $3.30 to produce a meal, in part because of the buying power of participating in the N.C. Procurement Alliance, a buying group of 100 school districts across North Carolina. But what good is an affordable meal if the children decide it’s not delicious? The purchasing power of the alliance has allowed nutrition administrators to work directly with manufacturers to develop products that meet national specifications and appeal to student taste preferences.

For example, to make chicken nuggets a healthier food choice, the manufacturer started producing them with whole-wheat breading. They were not well received, and Seelman witnessed untouched nuggets left on lunch trays. The manufacturer reformulated the nugget breading to improve the taste while maintaining the nutritious benefit.

Child nutrition services are not fully funded by the government. School nutrition services are non-profit organizations that must ensure their expenses do not exceed income. In an effort to save a few dollars, many districts across the nation have opted to outsource their school nutrition services to large companies that do not have a personal stake in the local community.

We think it’s important that Pitt County has elected to keep child nutrition services a local business. It provides employment opportunities for community members while also being mindful of the affordability and quality of the food that is served to the children. By providing affordable, delicious and kid-friendly meals, I would argue that Pitt County School Nutrition Services is doing its part to combat food insecurity in our community and help children learn to eat healthy, affordable foods and beverages.

Frank Hernandez is a medical student participating in service-learning distinction track, a unique program at Brody. Dr. Susan K. Keen, a Brody family physician, is the adviser to that track, which prepares, encourages, supports and recognizes medical students who work extensively with medically underserved, marginalized and rural populations during their medical school careers.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.