Aug 01, 2023

Asheville City Schools might offer all students free meals

ASHEVILLE - Several county school districts in Western North Carolina have announced breakfast and lunch will be free for all students in the 2023-24 school year. But one district has yet to follow suit ― Asheville City Schools.

According to staff, this is due to the lack of free and reduced lunch forms filled out each year, but it could possibly be achieved with more student participation.

Kathleen King, a parent of a kindergartner and second grader at Isaac Dickson Elementary, told the Citizen Times Aug. 30 that she was disappointed to hear city schools would not be offering free lunch this school year.

She said she has family members who qualify but who say the paperwork can feel overwhelming and "cumbersome."

"I prefer my kids to eat at school. I'm a single mom, so packing lunches every night, cleaning up the lunches and doing all the stuff takes lot of time. I'm going back to school, and I got a full-time job. It's a lot of work to do and even though I may not qualify for it, it would be really nice to save that money each week," King said.

School districts that want to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision ― commonly known as the free meal program ― have to meet eligibility requirements.

Buncombe County Schools and other surrounding counties like Henderson and Madison county schools have met these requirements.

Eligibility is determined by an Identified Student Percentage of 40% or higher. These are students who qualify for free school meals automatically — including families whose households receive "SNAP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations benefits, and in some states, Medicaid benefits; and children who are certified for free school meals without an application because they are homeless, migrant, runaway, enrolled in Head Start, or in foster care," according to Food Research & Action Center.

The ISP percentage equates to 65-70% of students being eligible for free or reduced-price meals. According to ACS spokesperson Dillon Huffman, CEP determination is based on data pulled on April 1 of each year.

On April 1, 2023, Asheville City Schools' free or reduced percentage was around 41%, which did not meet that 65-70% threshold that would allow the district to participate in CEP.

Currently, no school in the district meets the qualifying criteria for CEP, according to Huffman.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130% the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. For a family of four this is around $30,000 a year, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Children from families with incomes between 130%-185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.

More:Buncombe County high school earns top 10 state ranking by U.S. News. See more rankings.

The application can be filled out at Nutrition Info / Home ( or in person. If a family received a letter from the school that stated the child was already approved for free meals in the 2023-24 school year, then there's no need to fill out a form, according to the Asheville City Schools website.

To qualify for free or reduced lunch one of three things is considered:

More:Blue dresses, pink bows, 1st day jitters: Back to school in Asheville and Buncombe County

"In order for city schools to offer free meals the free or reduced percentage would have to increase to meet the qualifying criteria for CEP or the meal participation would need to significantly increase," Huffman said.

"If our meal participation increased, we could potentially offer breakfast at no cost to students as the school nutrition program could financially absorb that cost."

Huffman said that the school encourages families to complete the free and reduced-price meal application to see if they qualify.

While it isn't possible to offer this school year, student meal participation and free and reduced lunch data will be taken again on April 1, 2024.

A student’s free or reduced meal status is confidential. Each student has an ID number that they use when going through the lunch line that keeps track of this data and charges them accordingly. All menu options are available to all students and all students are treated equally at Asheville City Schools, Huffman said.

If a student is overdrawn on their lunch balance or doesn't have enough money for a meal, they will never go hungry.

"If a student has outstanding meal charges on their account or does not have money for a meal on any given day, students are allowed to charge their meals. There is no limit to how many meals a student can charge," Huffman said.

"The district pays the bill at the end of the year if there are any outstanding charges. If someone wants to make a donation to our School Nutrition Department to cover these balances, please contact Melissa Bates at [email protected]."

Katie Toth, a mother of two at Ira B. Jones Elementary School said she knows her family doesn't qualify — but does know of some who might.

"I do know of several kids in my daughter's class who are being raised by their grandparents and they just might not even realize it's an option," Toth told the Citizen Times Aug. 30.

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction website a district becomes eligible for CEP if 40% or more of students in a district are already certified to eat for free without filling out an application.

In the 2021-2022 school year 64.7% of school districts in the state of North Carolina were eligible for CEP, according to a report from FRAC.

The Community Eligibility Provision was approved by congress in 2010. It was a part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It became an available option nationwide in the 2014-2015 school year.

"The higher our percentage of students participating in the free and reduced lunch program the more funds we receive, and it allows us to spread that money across the school," Sarah Cain, Asheville City Schools director of elementary education, said in an informational video on free and reduced lunch.

Everything put on the form is confidential. The overall percentage of who eats free and reduced lunch determines the funding for next year.

Find the form at Nutrition Info / Home ( Click on the button that says, "apply online for free and reduced-price school meals," on the district website. Students will also be sent home with these applications within the first week of school. So, make sure to check those backpacks and don't miss out on reduced or free prices.

More:Buncombe County Schools students will get free breakfast and lunch at start of school year

Buncombe County Schools made the announcement June 15 to parents and staff that all enrolled students at BCS are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch that started on Aug. 28.

Madison County Schools also made the announcement that starting in the 2023-24 school year, all students will receive free meals.

Henderson County Public Schools have been providing breakfasts free of charge to students, but at the Henderson County Board of Education meeting on Aug. 14 it passed that lunches will also be free in the 2023-24 school year.

Will Asheville City Schools follow suit in the upcoming years? To help ensure the chances parents can fill out the free and reduced lunch forms this school year to see if their child is eligible.

More:Asheville City Schools votes to privatize school meals for the 2023-24 school year

McKenna Leavens is the education reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @LeavensMcKennna. Please support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.