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WUNC's American Graduate Project is part of a nationwide public media conversation about the dropout crisis. We'll explore the issue through news reports, call-in programs and a forum produced with UNC-TV. Also as a part of this project we've partnered with the Durham Nativity School and YO: Durham to found the WUNC Youth Radio Club. These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and these generous funders: Project Funders:GlaxoSmithKlineThe Goodnight Educational FoundationJoseph M. Bryan Foundation State FarmThe Grable FoundationFarrington FoundationMore education stories from WUNC

'Too Good To Be True' - Hundreds Of NC Schools Offer Free Meals To All Kids

Students at lunch
U.S. Department of Agriculture

About 650 schools throughout the state are opting into a program to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students.

It is part of a new program called Community Eligibility Provision, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The idea is to allow schools with high percentages of low-income children to offer free meals for all, instead of collecting individual applications for free and reduced price meals.

In Durham, 10 schools are offering free meals to all students.

"If no child is stigmatized based on their meal status, and everyone is treated the same it sort of breaks down those barriers and lets children be a community together," said James Keaton, the district's executive director of school nutrition. Keaton added that children who may not qualify for free and reduced lunches can also benefit from free meals.

If children are hungry, they can't learn. If their brains are concentrating on when their tummies are going to be fed, they're not concentrating on math or science or reading.

"A lot of those kids, their mothers might be dropping them off at school while they're on their way to the first of their two jobs and they may not have time to feed their kids," Keaton said.

Twenty-seven percent of kids in North Carolina are at risk for hunger or food insecurity, which is higher than the national average, said Lynn Harvey, director of nutrition services with the state's Department of Public Instruction. "If children are hungry, they can't learn. If their brains are concentrating on when their tummies are going to be fed, they're not concentrating on math or science or reading," she said.  
How It Works
The program also saves the schools money and time because schools no longer have to collect individual forms for free and reduced meals.
"I think one of the first responses from many of our school districts was 'this is too good to be true,'" Harvey said.

A school qualifies if at least 40 percent of its students are eligible for free meals or participate in another federal income-based program. The number of homeless, migrant, runaway, Head Start or foster children is also taken into consideration.

But even if a school qualifies, it may not want to participate. The USDA will only reimburse for the number of students in need times 1.6. That means some schools will get 100 percent reimbursement, while other schools, with fewer students in need, may not. In those cases, the schools would have to find additional funding to cover the meals.
Under the provision, schools will be able to offer the free meals for at least the next four years.
At R.N. Harris Elementary School in Durham, the program has not even been in effect for two months, but those closest to the students say they already see a difference. Sheila Evans sits at the end of the lunch line every day, ringing up the students' meals.
"There are more kids eating now than before, the number has increased since they've done breakfast free and lunch free," she said.
Looking at this year's numbers compared to last year's, the elementary school has served 770 more lunch meals, a 10 percent increase.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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