Legislation provides some assistance to school nutrition departments

After passing in Congress, President Biden signed the Keep the Kids Fed Act  on June 23, partially extending school meal flexibilities just days before they were set to expire.

‘Lunchflation’ plagues WNC schools

After three abnormal school years due to the Coronavirus Pandemic that included free breakfast and lunch for all public-school students, schools across North Carolina are returning to the paid model of nutrition services. Now, a confluence of factors has necessitated a sharp increase in school meal costs.

Free meal program going well at WNC schools

schoolsHalf a year after launching a program that makes breakfast and lunch free for every child in school, the financials are looking good for Jackson County Schools’ child nutrition program.

Schools feeding more students for free

fr schoollunchFree lunch is becoming a more common phenomenon around Western North Carolina as school systems start adopting a new federal program aiming to increase kids’ access to food in high-poverty areas.

Jackson County Schools leading the way on farm-to-school path

When it comes to connecting farmers with students and substituting common cafeteria fare with fresh, local produce grown here in the mountains, Jackson County Schools stands at or near the forefront of Western North Carolina school systems.

Jackson County has encouraged students to actively grow lettuce used in the school’s cafeteria, utilized grant money to help introduce elementary school children to fresh vegetables and tapped into nutritional expertise at Western Carolina University and area community colleges. School cafeteria workers have even been taken on field trips to visit the local farms where some of the produce they use comes from.

On a recent weekday at Smoky Mountain High School, students such as Jesse Ammons were busy in the school’s greenhouse testing the waters for the airoponics lettuce they produce. The roots of airoponics lettuce are neither in soil nor water, but are misted with water droplets.

These students are part of an unusual local foods program here in Sylva that involves those in the school’s agriculture classes learning to grow salad for themselves and other students to enjoy in the school’s cafeteria. “Mustang salad,” they call it, in honor of the school’s mascot.

Ammons is busy, but he takes the time to acknowledge briefly that he does enjoy the hands-on experience he receives in this particular class.

“I do like it,” Ammons said before rushing off to complete another assigned task.



“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jim Hill, the schools’ nutritionist. “This has really helped us in ‘branding’ a salad. That means consumption of salad goes up. Just getting the word out that students’ friends have helped grow the salad gets them more interested.”

Agriculture educator Jeremy Jones said there’s been quite a learning curve to growing the lettuce. It required fieldtrips to Haywood Community College, among other things, to see it being done correctly.

The lettuce project at Smoky Mountain High School is in its third year. To serve the lettuce, Jackson County’s school system had to gain OKs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jackson County’s health department and the state Department of Public Instruction.

The students can’t grow enough lettuce to fully supply the demand of fellow students, so Hill has reached out to local farmers to help supply additional homegrown products for the cafeteria. This has helped foster ties into the local agriculture community.

Steven Beltram and wife Becca Nestler, who operate Balsam Gardens, are working with the schools in Jackson County. It hasn’t been easy circumnavigating all the federal and state regulations involved, Beltram said.

“But Jim Hill has a major interest in making it happen,” Beltram said. “So we’re hoping our work with Jackson County Schools can be sort of a pilot project and model for other school systems in the region.”

Beltram and Nestler grow organic vegetables, plus raise and sell small livestock such as pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens off their small, diversified farm. The couple just had their first child and has a special, but understandable, interest in seeing the farm-to-schools program work.

This led them to explore renting greenhouse space at the county’s Green Energy Park. Beltram and Nestler hope to start growing hydroponics lettuce there starting this year and sell the resulting produce to Jackson County Schools.

“That’s an idea we are trying to make happen,” Beltram said.


WCU, ASAP also involved

‘Mustang Salads’ might be the flashy calling card for the local foods program in Jackson County. But there’s much more going on than just that. The schools are also working with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to introduce kids to local food through school gardens, farm field trips and cooking demonstrations. There are “tasting” events at Cullowhee Valley School on a regular basis, where kids sample a variety of vegetables, presented in fun ways, exposing them to tastes they might not otherwise enjoy.

“It’s phenomenal what ASAP is doing here,” Hill said. “We don’t have the staff or financial ability to do and fund the amount of nutrition projects they are now helping us with.”

Specifically, ASAP was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to integrate farm-to-school course work into the teaching college curriculum at Western Carolina University. The purpose is simple but complex: to get the future teachers of America thinking about how local foods and ultimately, get school kids eating good, locally grown foods.

Cullowhee Valley School, just across the street from WCU, has served as a learning lab for the WCU initiative.

“The students from WCU can come see farm-to-school in action,” said Emily Jackson, program director of ASAP. “They can see first hand children cooking in the classroom, children gardening, taste tests in the cafeteria.”

In addition to the pilot program at Cullowhee Valley, ASAP is working with the Head Start program run by Mountain Projects for pre-K children.

“This is new for us,” said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator for ASAP, said. “We want to arm (students and educators) with healthy cooking techniques, and how to cook using local ingredients.”

Ringing it up: Strained finances pose a hurdle to healthier school lunches

Few restaurants could afford to lose $1 on every meal they serve, but in Haywood County school cafeterias, that’s the reality faced every day.

It costs $3.75 to fix a lunch, including the food and labor. But, the federal government pays just $2.79 for students receiving free or reduced lunches — the sector that makes up the majority of kids going through the lunch line.

The loss of $1 per lunch adds up fast considering there are 5,300 lunches being served in Haywood County schools every day. That’s a loss of nearly $100,000 a month.

The plight is universally shared by every school cafeteria.

“You have to buy your food, your equipment, pay your employees and their benefits — you tell me what restaurant could do that at $2.79,” said Sherry Held, the nutrition director of Macon County Schools.

To plug the hole, schools peddle a la carte items — chips, cookies, ice cream, Gatorade and the like. In all, the sale of snacks generates a little more than $1 million a year in Haywood County to cover the losses on the lunch side.

Granted, the chips are the baked variety only and the cookies and ice cream are low-fat. But, they still aren’t healthy per se.

“I would love not to even put those things out there, but we have to offer them to make up that difference,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.

In Swain County, a la carte snacks bring in $150,000 a year, money the school lunch program simply can’t afford to do without.

“They are forced to sell items that students will buy in order to generate money,” said Lynn Harvey, the director of child nutrition for the state of North Carolina.

Absent adequate funding from the federal or state government, the burden to supplement school lunches would fall to local school systems. But they, too, don’t have the dollars to spare.

“Most local boards of education would prefer to put their education dollars in the classroom,” Harvey said. “We need to help our decision makers recognize that adequate meals at school is a tremendous part of academic success.”

There is one school district in the state that has put its money where their students’ mouths are. Asheville City Schools subsidizes the school lunch program so elementary school cafeterias don’t have to sell snacks. Water, 100-percent fruit juice and animal crackers are the only supplemental items found in Asheville City elementary schools.

“The school system was willing to kick in funding to make that happen,” said Beth Palien, the nutrition director for Asheville City Schools. “We want to do what is in the best interest of the child.”

She estimates they are giving up at least $75,000 a year.

That’s something that’s simply not possible for most school districts, despite their hearts being in it.

“I would love to see the meals be part of public education like text books and transportation and not have to sell that other stuff,” Francis said.

Francis is grateful that in Haywood County, the local school system covers indirect costs such as electricity, which certainly helps.

Still, Haywood County is losing about $200,000 dollars a year. Right now, the balance is coming from savings, squirreled away in better times. That fund has been depleted to just $600,000 though and clearly won’t last forever.


Options on the table

Cost constraints are the primary hurdle faced by school cafeterias in serving healthier, better quality food.

Cafeteria workers wish they could serve apples instead of apple juice, baked potatoes instead of fries or even fresh green beans instead of canned. Francis recalled one school principal who asked why they couldn’t buy raw chicken breasts to grill instead of serving frozen chicken nuggets.

It costs 16 cents for four ounces of juice, compared to 30 cents for a whole apple, for example.

“Unfortunately a lot of healthier made-from-scratch items cost more. It takes more time to prepare so you have to have more labor,” Francis said.

That’s a luxury Francis doesn’t have. The workforce at the 16 school cafeterias in Haywood County has been cut from 120 to 107 in two years. Francis luckily was able to make the cuts through attrition rather than lay-offs.

Haywood cafeteria workers have seen a cut in their pay in an effort to make ends meet. They used to spend teacher workdays cleaning and repairing kitchen equipment. But this year, they will stay home on teacher workdays and lose nine days of pay as a result.


Baked, not fried

Another hurdle to healthier food is the right kitchen equipment — which, in the end, also comes down to money.

At Jonathan Valley Elementary in Haywood County, a fryer still claims coveted floor space in the kitchen, but it hasn’t been used in three years — at least not as a fryer. Until someone hauls it away, it’s been pressed into service as a counter for hot pots and pans.

Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties have phased out fryers almost entirely during the past few years.

“We have no fryers in our school cafeterias at all,” said Diane Shuler, the nutrition director in Swain County. “They are baked, steamed, broiled, boiled.”

It wasn’t cheap, however. Cafeterias had to replace their fryers with giant industrial ovens, lined with enough racks to warm hundreds of corn dogs and potato wedges at a time.

“A new oven is $15,000 to $16,000 dollars,” Francis said.

Discontinuing fryers also means more prep work at a time they are trying to cut back on labor.

“We are feeding such a larger volume of students in such a short period of time, to bake enough fries you have to start a lot earlier,” Shuler said.

In Haywood County, Francis budgets a measly $60,000 a year for equipment. Francis guards the money with her life for the inevitable equipment repair or breakdown.

The dishwashers in the schools date to the 1970s, but it would cost $35,000 a piece to replace them — hardly in the realm of possibility until they absolutely won’t function, she said.

“We joke that we use duct tape to hold everything together. We patch it up as long as we can,” Francis said.


Dollars and cents

Half or more of the student body at most schools in WNC qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Macon County, 60 percent of the student body is in the program. Here’s how it works:

•  For students on free lunch, the federal government reimburses the school for $2.79 a lunch. The student pays nothing.

• For those on reduced lunch, the government reimburses  $2.39. The student pays just 40 cents.

• For students who pay out-of-pocket, most school districts charge $2 for at the elementary level and $2.25 at middle and high school. The government kicks in 28 cents for out-of-pocket students.

While there’s little the school system can do about the reimbursement rate from the feds for free and reduced lunch students, it begs the question: why not, at least for out-of-pocket students, charge a price commiserate with the true cost of the lunch?

Out-of-pocket students account for just 10 and 20 percent of the total lunches served in area schools, but charging more for their plates couldn’t hurt. Or could it?

“We would be out pricing ourselves. Parents can’t afford to pay that much,” Francis said.

Raising the cost for out-of-pocket kids would be akin to shooting themselves in the foot, Francis said.

School cafeterias benefit from an economy of scale. It’s better to have those out-of-pocket students buying lunch at the current price than not at all, since the fixed costs of labor and overhead are the biggest expense behind that lunch — not the cost of the food itself. Francis estimates out of the $3.75 she has in every lunch tray, only $1 of that was actually spent on food.

“The more people that participate the better off we are,” Francis said.

But like it or not, schools will be forced by federal pricing mandates, starting next year, to raise the cost of lunch for out-of-pocket students by 10 cents a year during the next several years until it more closely matches its reimbursement level.

Francis had always wanted to go back to school on the side to get her master’s in nutrition. But, now, she is reconsidering which degree she really needs the most.

“The longer I have been in this job, I realize it takes an MBA,” Francis said.


Lunch programs by county


• Total annual budget: $4.86 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 34 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $1 million

• Federal reimbursements: $2.3 million

• Self-pay lunches: $900,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 5,365

• Percent that get lunch: 80 percent in elementary, 79 percent in middle, 65 percent in high


• Total annual budget: $2.5 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 46 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $400,000

• Federal reimbursements: $1.575 million

• Self-pay lunches: $450,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 3,150

• Percent that get lunch: 77 percent in elementary, 66 to 71 percent in middle and high


• Total annual budget: $1.129 million

• Percent of budget spent on food: 35 percent

• Amount made selling snacks: $126,500

• Federal reimbursements: $642,000

• Self-pay lunches: $178,000

• Average number of lunches served a day: 1,443

• Percent that get lunch: 83 percent in elementary, 77 percent in middle, 66 percent in high

Out with the fryer, in with baked sweet potatoes: Schools balance healthier lunches with what kids will eat

It was only 11 a.m., and already 60 fidgeting children had streamed down the lunch line at Jonathan Valley Elementary School, eagerly eying the pans of corndogs and beans, a steady barrage that would continue in five-minute waves until, some 300 lunches later, each class had eaten.

At the end of the serving counter they paused and peered into the milk cooler, pondering whether to grab chocolate or regular, while those lucky enough to have spare change in their pocket might make a dive into the most coveted bin — a freezer full of ice-cream.

Here’s what the kids don’t know. The chocolate milk is fat free, the ice-cream is low fat, and as for the corn dog? Try turkey dogs wrapped in whole-grain dough.

“We try to sneak it in there,” said Allison Francis, the nutrition director for Haywood County Schools.

There’s actually a term for that in school nutrition circles: “stealth health.”

SEE ALSO: Strained finances pose a hurdle to healthier school lunches

Despite the age-old stereotype, school lunches are the most mulled-over, fought-over, thought-out meal kids are likely to eat all day.

“School food historically gets a bad rap,” said Sherry Held, the school nutrition director in Macon County. “But where can you get a meal as nutritious as ours?”

Held and her counterparts are quick to rally to their own defense.

“People say school meals are not healthy, but let me tell you something, they are,” said Diane Shuler, the school nutritionist in Swain County.

But it isn’t easy.

“It gets kind of complicated,” Shuler said. “People think all I do is feed kids.”

Meeting a litany of federal standards yet fixing something kids like — particularly within the dour budget at their disposal — is a challenge to say the least.

“We probably all need counseling, but it is rewarding,” Held agreed. “If the students are eating good food, it is going to help fuel their minds and bodies.”

School lunches are undoubtedly a big business. While school lunch planners at the local level agonize over their weekly menus, trying to shoehorn all the food groups into a meal kids will eat, giant food manufacturers are employing teams of lobbyists to work the halls of Washington, ensuring pesky details like the health of children don’t stand in the way of bringing their products to market.

Despite the powerful interests behind fried tater-tots and crinkle fries, the federal government is moving slowly but surely toward healthier school lunch trays.

National media made great hay out of the fight over school lunch standards last month — a now notorious debate over whether pizza constitutes a vegetable.

New federal standards for school lunches will be unveiled in January, something that has school nutrition directors waiting somewhat nervously.

“We are about to see a sweeping overhaul in the child nutrition program,” said Lynn Harvey, the state director of child nutrition. “We know it will include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

It will undoubtedly cost more. The federal government will ante up an additional six cents per lunch to help defray the costs, but Harvey has heard estimates that the cost of providing a single lunch will increase by 56 cents.


Money problems limit solutions

Several years ago, North Carolina took matters into its own hands. No more waiting on the federal government to make school lunches healthier. The state would come up with its own guidelines.

Unfortunately, many of the lofty goals — like requiring whole grains and banning fryers — were ultimately side-lined because they cost too much. Instead of standards, they were downgraded to mere “recommendations.”

“The problem is those standards were never funded by the North Carolina General Assembly,” said Harvey.

The standards were tested in 134 elementary schools across the state, but when it came time to make them policy, without funding to help schools make the transition, they were deemed impossible and unfair.

Healthy foods not only cost more and require more staff time to prepare, but school districts would have to replace equipment such as fryers with ovens — something that would cost a single county hundreds of thousands in new kitchen equipment.

At the time, Francis worked in one the few school districts to pilot the standards contemplated by the state. One in particular sticks out in Francis’ mind: the idea of meeting the USDA food group quotas for each and every lunch. Previously, schools counted servings of fruits, vegetables, protein and so on during an entire week and took the average — rather than applying the exact food group standards to each meal.

“It was next to impossible. All of us were in tears trying to plan menus and make it work,” Francis said. That idea was soon dropped.

Unfortunately, so were the other standards.

But, local school districts have voluntarily implemented the recommendations from the state anyway — roughly 80 percent in all. Fruit plays a starring role in desserts, from apple crisp to sliced pears. Tacos are made with ground turkey. Fried foods have been phased out almost entirely.

All the milk is either skim or 1 percent. Salad dressings are low-fat.

In Macon County this year, all chicken products are now whole-muscle chicken, rather than processed parts.

It’s something Shuler would like to do in Swain County as well, but the cost is prohibitive. Whole-muscle chicken products are simply too costly, she said.

One of the biggest pushes has come in whole grains. Bread and buns are whole grain, even the pizza crust. It means brown rice instead of white. Whole-wheat pasta is being slipped into dishes. But, it’s a balancing act.

“If it doesn’t taste good, even if you follow all these guidelines, they aren’t going to eat it,” Held said.

It’s the challenge all school lunch directors face.

“You can make something as healthy as you possibly can, but if it is not something they like, it is going to end up in the trash can,” Francis said.

Francis understands picky kids. For years, she stuffed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her purse before going to out eat with her kids. There was no way she was going to order and pay for something on the menu her kids wouldn’t eat anyway.

Meanwhile, food companies have seen the writing on the wall. From Sara Lee to Kellogg’s, they offer special wholesale lines for school cafeterias that have lower fat, sugar and salt contents than the grocery store varieties.

Sure you might see pizza on the school menu but looks can be deceiving.

“Our pizza has whole-wheat crust and reduced fat-cheese and turkey pepperoni,” Francis said.

These facts are strikingly absent from the printed lunch menu, however.

“We don’t really want to tell children they are eating whole-grain pizza. We just tell them, ‘You get pizza today!’” Held said.


‘Baby steps’

Held has learned the importance of baby steps in the five years that she has been with Macon County Schools.

“We try to ease them in to making better choices, like whole-wheat spaghetti and slowly eliminating the not so healthy choices,” Held said.

They are also learning what simply doesn’t take. Kids are savvy. They check the school lunch menus, and if they don’t like what’s on it, they bring their lunch that day. The cafeterias can ill-afford to fix food that no one will buy.

Students have summarily rejected whole-wheat mac-and-cheese for example, Held said. In Swain, they learned that lesson the hard way.

The first time Swain County put whole-wheat mac-and-cheese on the serving line this year, kids eagerly loaded it onto their trays but were less than enamored with it once they sat down and started eating. Hoping once more, they went got it again the next time it made a lunch line appearance.

But the third time it turned up on the menu, they wouldn’t touch it. The school cafeteria had to crank out 130 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — the staple substitute when standard menu items are rejected — as kids came through the line.

The problem, however, is that Swain County ordered copious volumes of whole-wheat pasta at the beginning of the year that still has to be used up.

“Live and learn, live and learn,” Shuler said.

Ultimately, the hope is that the good eating habits introduced at school will bleed over into their home life.

“If you daughter came home and said, ‘Mommy I tried sweet potato wedges at school today and they were really yummy,’ you might say, ‘Really?’” Held said. “We do the best we can with the time we have with them.”


Free breakfast!

Any K-12 student eligible for free or reduced lunch can now get breakfast at no cost — yes, that’s totally free — thanks to a new state initiative that recognizes kids don’t learn as well when they’re hungry.


School lunch by the numbers

• $2.79: federal reimbursement for students on free lunch

• $2: school lunch for elementary student paying out of pocket

• $3.75: average cost of preparing a lunch in Haywood County

• 16 cents: cost to school for 4 ounces of juice

• 30 cents: cost to school for an apple

• $15,000-$20,000: cost of an oven to replace a deep fryer

• 35 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on food

• 65 percent: portion of school lunch budget spent on salaries and overhead

Going hungry: Many in region, particularly children, are doing without for Thanksgiving

It’s Thursday afternoon, and Amy Grimes has her head in a freezer digging around for a few things to add to the cardboard boxes at her feet that are already filled with food of various descriptions. A few yards away, volunteers scurry back and forth, bringing food to guests at the many table scattered throughout what was once a living room. With its cozy setting, plethora of set tables, and the inviting smell of chili wafting from the kitchen of this old house, it would be easy to mistake the scene for a mom-and-pop restaurant gearing up for the dinner rush.

But it isn’t. This is Sylva’s Community Table, where those in need can stop by four evenings a week to enjoy a hot meal, friendly company and — if they need it — some extra food to get them through. And most of all, says Grimes, handing one of the now-full boxes to a customer, they can do it with dignity.

While the Community Table has long been a busy spot in Jackson County, Grimes says her customers have changed over the last few years. As the recession has deepened,  for many the long-promised light at the end of the tunnel has not come.

As recently as last year, the Community Table hosted up 40 dinner guests each night; now they’re serving around 100 people per night on a regular basis.

“For the entire year of 2009, we served 10,335 meals,” says Grimes. “This year, through October, we’ve served over 18,000. We’re going to more than double [by the end of the year].”

The requests to the food pantry have increased as well. Grimes said she received about one request a month for take-home food two years ago, if that. Now she gets up to 80 requests for boxes every month.

Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries, echoes those sentiments. Her staff and volunteers busily pack food boxes in the basement of their Waynesville building, working to keep up with the 60-to-80-box-a-day demand they’re currently seeing.

“Last month we had 315 families in October alone,” James says.  “I don’t remember a month that we’ve had that many people.”

That change in volume has also been accompanied by a change in clientele. Historically, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries have served the traditionally disenfranchised — the elderly living on fixed incomes, those with physical or mental disabilities, the long-term homeless. Now, however, working families are beginning to represent a greater portion of the needy in Western North Carolina.

It’s a fact that is reflected across the region in the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced lunch at school.


Free lunches: a barometer of the times

In Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, more than half of public school students are getting their school meals free or at a reduced price. Jackson and Macon have been above 50 percent for the last few years: Jackson had right at 50 percent in the program in 2009, and it’s now climbed to just over 55 percent, while Macon is holding steady with 59 percent of its students getting free or cheaper food, up from 56 percent at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Haywood County saw that statistic climb above the 50 percent for the first time this fall. The system now has 52 percent of its student body enrolled in the federal program, a 10 percent increase from just six years ago.

Free and reduced lunch numbers are often used as an indicator of how many children are living in poverty, but what, exactly, do they mean?

To get free lunch through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, a family must be living at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $28,665 this year. To get a reduced-price lunch, which amounts to 40 cents instead of the undiscounted price of $2, total family income has to be between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level. This year, that’s anywhere between $28,666 and $40,793 for a family of four.

Lynn Harvey, Child Nutrition Director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says that these numbers aren’t isolated in the western part of the state. Children across the state have been hard hit by the slouching economy and depend on the food they get at school.

“Since late 2008, we’ve seen about at 10 percent increase in the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals,” says Harvey. “North Carolina now ranks second in the number of children and adults who are food insecure. That essentially means that these are children who literally do not know where their next meal will come from. That makes [school meals] a real lifeline for them.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 15 percent of the nation — 17.5 million people — are struggling to put food on the table, which translates into scores of children depending on outside sources of food to stave off their hunger.

Ginger Moore, the cafeteria supervisor at Jonathan Valley Elementary School near Maggie Valley, has seen this truth firsthand. She and her fellow cafeteria workers have noticed that, especially after long holiday weekends, many students come back desperately hungry.

“When a 6-year-old can eat four bowls of cereal, you know they’re pretty hungry,” she says. That, in part, is why the school has teamed up with Asheville’s Manna Food Bank to offer what they call Manna Packs. It’s a simple pack of kid-friendly food, like instant macaroni, that can feed a child through a weekend where they might not otherwise find a hot meal in front of them.

Back in Jackson County, they’re doing the same. Kids that teachers, counselors, cafeteria or social workers notice may need some food at home are getting sent away each Friday with a few things to sustain them through the weekend.


Poverty strikes children hardest

While the number of children slipping into poverty and hunger may be on the rise, the disproportionate effect of poverty on kids is nothing new. Dr. Lydia Aydlett is a psychologist specializing in children who has been working with kids and families since the 1970s. According to Aydlett, when the poverty rate increases, kids are the most at-risk.

“Children are going to be poorer than the population as a whole,” says Aydlett, and this is particularly true for Western North Carolina. Haywood County, for example, has a relatively low poverty rate of 14.5 percent, which includes everybody, from the nursery to the nursing home. But for the county’s kids — everyone under 18 — just over 23 percent of them live in poverty.

Macon County is much the same. They have a pretty low overall poverty rate — about 13 percent, the lowest among Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — but nearly 24 percent of children there are in poverty, the highest among those four. This means that, while everybody suffers when a recession drags on, unemployment remains lackluster, and the available balance in nearly everyone’s bank account is dwindling, the consequences for the youngest are exponentially more dire.

“Living in poverty has some pretty grave consequences for kids,” says Aydlett. “In general, they’re likely to have poor education, they’re likely to have greater health problems, they’re likely to have lower cognitive skills, and that’s children across the board living in poverty. For little kids, the youngest kids, they’re the most vulnerable because their brains are still forming. As their brains are forming, they’re dependent on a good environment and good nurturing for them to reach their potential. And when kids are in poverty, there are huge family stressors.”

Being food insecure, then, isn’t just bad for the body, it’s bad for the whole child, says Aydlett, because parents are more likely to succumb to those ‘family stressors,’ to be more concerned with keeping children fed and clothed than tracking or nurturing their development. When a family is working just to survive, there is no time or energy left on which to thrive.

“Child development goes way down the list of important things when parents are worried about where the next meal’s coming from or how they’re going to pay the heating bill,” says Aydlett. She says research has borne out the theory that parents who are more financially secure are able to devote more time to their child’s development.

“There are all kinds of studies about language differences of parents who are in poverty and parents who are not,” explains Aydlett. “Parents who live in poverty tend to give children orders or directions, where middle-class families, they’re more likely to say, ‘well what did you do at school today, let’s talk about this.’ There is more conversation, more elaboration, more attention.”


Study reveals upside of economic security

A 2003 Duke University study done in Cherokee after following the casino opening found much the same result. Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.

“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”

However, Aydlett notes, being poor doesn’t, by default, deprive children of the nurturing they need to develop into healthy adults.

“It’s parent involvement. What really seemed to happen [in the Duke study] is that the money allowed the parents to be more involved, to monitor more, so you’re going to have bad outcomes, you’re going to have kids who are in trouble even in very wealthy families if they don’t have input and don’t have those relationships.

“If you’re poor but have a tight-knit family in a healthy community, even though you’re poor you’re likely to be OK,” she said.

That combination is what many programs in the community — like Head Start and even the free and reduced lunch program — aim to provide to low-income families.


Life on the edge of poverty

Charles and Karen Tucker say their family is benefiting from such programs. The Tuckers are regulars at Sylva’s Community Table, and they say it’s been a lifeline for them in raising their five children.

They’ve lived for years on the edge of sustenance, always working but never with much extra. But when the recession hit, Karen’s hours were cut at Roses, where she’s worked for 10 years, and the help they’d always occasionally taken from the Community Table became vital.

“We pretty much just live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. She is at the Community Table tonight, having dinner with her husband, still in her ‘Roses’ uniform polo and khaki skirt. Finishing her last few bites of cole slaw, she praises the efforts of organizations like the Community Table that have helped her family get by.

“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t make it at all,” says Tucker. She says that she and her husband, with help from their church and other community organizations, have raised their children without a poverty mindset. Although scraping by was tough, and continues to be, she has high hopes for her kids’ success. Her eldest son is in the military in Oklahoma, her oldest daughter is happily married and living in Georgia with three children of her own, and their 17-year-old daughter is currently investigating colleges.

“I’m really pushing my girls to go to college, because I don’t want them to end up like I have,” Tucker says. “It ain’t easy, I can tell you that. I mean, we’ve managed all these years, but it’s just a big struggle.”

Part of the challenge for groups trying to help families like the Tuckers is overcoming the stigma associated with asking for help, and Lynn Hunter with the state’s child nutrition program says that’s one of their greatest goals: getting food to kids who need it without exposing them to shame or ridicule.

“For any human being, when their self-esteem is compromised because they’re participating in a food assistance program, that’s a very painful thing,” she says. To combat that, Hunter and her team are pushing a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in schools statewide. If offers a low-cost breakfast to kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced price, and a discounted or free breakfast to those who do. But, Hunter says, it does much more to promote togetherness and health among all students, while quietly giving the hungry just what they need.

“It helps to remove some of the stigma associated with being the only child who arrives early to have breakfast at school,” says Hunter. “We’re trying to create an environment where all children participate, all children can enjoy.”

Schools are already halfway to this goal, no longer publicizing children who receive free or reduced lunch and offering whole-family applications for assistance, so older, more independent students don’t have to ask for themselves.

Amy Grimes of the Community Table is aiming for the same goal, trying to give help that isn’t a package deal, with shame and exclusion thrown in for free.

“It’s hard to come and ask for help anyway, so we want this to be the most welcoming, dignified environment,” says Grimes.

Many of her newer clients, she says, have never had to ask for help before and feel uncomfortable coming in. They are still working but aren’t making a living wage, and it’s those people who feel most heavily the stigma of taking help.

“They apologize for needing help, but everybody needs it sometimes,” says Grimes.

In Haywood County, Lisa James sees the same thing.

“We have seen an increase in the people who are unemployed who, in the past, have been giving to us,” says James. “Now they’re coming back and having to ask for help themselves.

“We’re seeing people who are working at $7 an hour, who were making 10 and 12. Minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.”

So as the economy continues to prove sluggish, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries are striving to navigate these new waters, this paradigm shift from generational poverty to situational poverty that’s creeping steadily across greater parts of the community.

Aydlett firmly believes, even if there is no economic turnaround in sight, that the community can still help even the poorest children succeed if they are vigilant.

“Children show resilience if somebody — it doesn’t have to be parents — but if somebody really loves them, really thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “We need to make sure kids have connections to grandparents, aunts or uncles, neighbors, somebody that can help provide love and support for those kids. Everybody needs that kind of person.”


How you can help

In Haywood County:

Haywood Christian Ministries

150 Branner Avenue

Waynesville, NC 28786


Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes


In Jackson County:

The Community Table

127 Bartlett Street

Sylva, NC 28779


Donations taken: food and financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes


In Swain County:

Bryson City Food Pantry

c/o Bryson City Presbyterian Church

311 Everett Street

Bryson City, NC 28713



In Macon County:


130 Bidwell Street

Franklin, NC 28734


Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes

Summer poses challenge for feeding low-income kids

Thousands of poor and low-income children across Western North Carolina rely on schools to get least at one square meal a day, but with classes now out for summer, there’s no easy solution for keeping kids fed.

“This question has been asked many times, and we’re trying to come up with a solution for the problem,” said Beth Stahl, MANNA Food Bank youth programs coordinator. “It’s scary to know they don’t have nutrition on a regular basis. We’re trying to fill in the gaps, but it’s a slow process.”

Throughout North Carolina, about 700,000 children qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, but only 53,000 or about 8 percent get free meals during the summer, said Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Ervin said. “I believe we can do better than 8 percent.”

The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses approved programs $1.85 per breakfast, $3.25 per lunch and 76 cents per snack.

But nonprofits, schools or other programs have to be in charge of preparing the food and keeping up with the paperwork required for reimbursement.

“It’s definitely one of the most needed federal programs,” Ervin said. “But it is the most underutilized program.”

In Macon County, 66.6 percent of the 4,239 students enrolled in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But no programs are in place to ensure those 2,825 children get good nutrition during the summer.

“It’s because we don’t have organizations that are interested or aware of the program,” Ervin said. “They just haven’t stepped up to the plate.”

Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties all have free meal centers and programs to reach kids who need food. But the number of kids fed during the summer through these programs still falls well below the number eligible for free or reduced meals during the school year.

In all three counties, any child up to 18-years-old can simply go during the right time to an open meal site and get a free meal. Proof of lower-income status isn’t required in counties where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year.

In Jackson County, 52 percent or about 1,500 to 1,800 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year, said Jim Hill, director of child nutrition. But in summers past, free lunch and breakfast programs have served only about 250 meals a day.

This year, Hill anticipates that number will double, he said.

“There is a major effort in North Carolina to get the feeding numbers up, and we want to be a part of that,” Hill said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to get a lot of people involved.”

Led by Jeffery Vickery, senior pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church, volunteers are delivering lunch to children at four free meal sites in the Tuckasegee, Cullowhee and Canada communities every weekday this summer to expand the reach of the program to more remote areas.

“These kids are spread out in little pockets everywhere,” Hill said. “You want to take it right to their neighborhood, and that’s the tough part.”

Vickery met with school officials to determine which areas had the poorest children and estimated the number of meals to prepare based on how many kids get off at nearby school bus stops.

“This is filling a gap that no one else has,” Vickery said. “The children needed the food. We are just a conduit willing to do it.”

Staff at Smoky Mountain High School prepares lunches that meet strict government nutrition guidelines, and Vickery and his crew deliver them.

Last week — the first week the four satellite sites were open — Cullowhee Baptist Church distributed 151 meals, Vickery said. He anticipates the number will increase as more children learn about the sites, he said. On Fridays, the students also get bags of food to take home for the weekend.

“We said going in that if there were four or five kids who didn’t go hungry this summer, it would be a success,” Vickery said.

Even with the new meal sites, about two-thirds of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year aren’t taking advantage of summer feedings.

“The big challenge is that there’s other children we can’t get to,” Vickery said. “The difficulty is knowing we could feed twice as many if we had other people willing to host a site.”

Although Jackson County has seen a great improvement in the number of children getting lunch during the summer, Swain and Haywood counties only have one location where meals are served to the general student population.

In Swain County, 1,230 of 1,880 or 64 percent of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price meals during the school year, said Diane Shuler, Swain County school food service director.

Swain County Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at the Swain Middle School cafeteria seven weeks during the summer, starting next week.

Last year, between 140 and 150 kids came to the middle school each day to get food. Most of those children attend summer camps. Few come in off the street, Shuler said.

Although Haywood County has several meal sites, only one — the Pigeon Community Center — is open to the general public. The rest serve students in specific summer day camps.

The Pigeon Community Center also offers a summer camp for eight or nine weeks each summer and usually enrolls between 37 and 47 children, program coordinator Lin Forney said.

Forney said the day camp focuses on children whose families can’t afford other summer camps. For the entire summer, the camp costs $200. But any child up to 18 years old can come in for breakfast or lunch, Forney said.

Besides a handful of children just down the street from the center, relatively few children come in for the meals, Forney said. She said she never sees children from other parts of the county like Canton, Clyde or Maggie Valley.

“The major issue is transportation,” Forney said. “Awareness is another factor.”

During the school year, 42 percent of enrolled students in Haywood County Schools are eligible for free lunch and another 9 percent can receive reduce priced lunch. Allison Francis, Haywood County director of child nutrition, said she is sure some children fall through the cracks, and other organizations are stepping up to try to fill the gaps.

In addition to meal sites this year, MANNA Food Bank is supplying food to Haywood Christian Ministries, which in turn will distribute it every Friday to eligible kids through a program called Summer Sacks.

The kids will receive between four and a half and five pounds of food, which may include pasta meals like Hamburger Helper, dried beans, rice, fruits, vegetables and a smaller bag of kids’ snacks, Stahl said.

“With what the family is already receiving from the food bank, I would say it would last about a week,” Stahl said.

Summer Sacks is a spin-off of a similar effort in Haywood County during the school year. School counselors identify students in need of extra food on weekends, and teachers stuff it in the kids’ backpacks on Fridays to get them through until Monday, Stahl said.

The last week of school, these same students got notes put in their backpacks to let their parents know they can pick up extra food bags at the Haywood Christian Ministries this summer.

Nobody knows how many kids will come for the summer backpacks, however, Stahl said.

The Summer Sack program started with a food drive led by Bonnie Williams with the Waynesville office of Keller Williams Realty. The company does regular service projects, and Williams raised the question in a planning meeting for their spring project.

“I said, ‘Does anybody know where these kids get their food in the summer?’” Williams said. “Over the summer there would be two months where they wouldn’t get food. So we decided to take it on.”

The realtors gathered food at four locations in Waynesville and collected more than 1,500 pounds of food on a single day in May. There was so much food, they couldn’t fit it into their cars to take to MANNA. Instead MANNA had to send a truck, Williams said.

“We didn’t know how much food it would take so we worked our butts off,” Williams said.


Summer meal sites for school kids

Jackson County

• Tuckasegee Baptist Church

• River Park Trailer Park (Cullowhee)

• Jackson County Recreation Complex

• Canada Community

Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Haywood County

• Pigeon Community Center

Breakfast 8:30 – 9:30 a.m.

Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Swain County

• Swain Middle School

Breakfast 7:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Lunch 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Macon County

• None


Wanting to help?

Organizations interested in sponsoring meal sites should contact Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Ervin begins recruiting new sponsors in the fall and visits potential organizations. Organizations must apply and be approved before they can get reimbursement, and volunteers must go through training.

There’s no minimum requirement for how many days or weeks an eligible organization serves meals during the summer or how many kids get fed through the site, Ervin said.

“We want them to do whatever they are capable of doing,” Ervin said.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.