The surprising amount universal free lunch would cost Durham schools: Nothing at all.

By Mary Helen Moore for The News & Observer

Updated March 15, 2024 10:48 AM


It was welcome news after a morning filled with dismal economic forecasts and financial handwringing.

Giving free meals to all the students in Durham Public Schools wouldn’t cost the county anything, local leaders learned Thursday — and it could actually wind up saving the district nearly $1.6 million a year.

That’s because Durham qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, a federal program that reimburses districts for providing free school breakfast and lunch.

  • For the whole district to qualify, 25% of students must automatically qualify for free school meals. This could be because their families get food assistance or welfare, are enrolled in Medicaid, or are homeless.
  • In Durham, that percentage is 46%. 
  • The savings would come from DPS being more fully reimbursed for the free breakfasts it already provides, and from not having to mail letters home and process applications for free and reduced-price lunches.

County extension director Donna Rewalt delivered the news Thursday during a joint meeting of the school board and county commissioners.

Durham CAN organized dozens of people to attend the meeting to support the idea.

Retired teacher Beverly McNeill was working in a Pennsylvania elementary school when it began offering free meals during an economic downturn.

“So all of a sudden, many families were extremely stressed and had very little money. The kids were hostile, hungry and aggressive,” she recalled. “And I could not believe the difference in my kids in three weeks when everybody had a full belly.”

Durham high school student Kyla Perry said there can be stigma associated with how the program is set up now.

“We don’t want to have to worry about how we’re going to be seen as poor students because we eat free food,” she said.

Five other school districts in North Carolina have adopted districtwide free meals through CEP:

  • In the mountains: Buncombe, Haywood, Rutherford, Wilkes
  • On the coast: Beaufort
  • With over 30,000 students, Durham would be the largest.

The district must notify the U.S. Department of Agriculture of its interest in CEP by April 1.


Some leaders have been concerned that implementing CEP would change how Title 1 funding is spread around.

  • That’s because the most common metric used to identify Title 1 schools is the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals.
  • Federal Title 1 money is meant to help low-income schools meet their academic goals. Equity-minded leaders don’t want to see Title 1 money spent on high-income schools. But there are other poverty metrics Durham could use instead.
  • “Title 1 funds are not required to be allocated to every CEP school. We’ve heard questions about that,” county nutrition specialist Raina Bunnag said.


Elected leaders did not discuss pursuing CEP on Thursday, but the school board promised to talk about it during its March 21 meeting, when budget negotiations will take center stage.

The Durham Association of Educators is rallying ahead of the meeting to increase pay for the district’s lowest-paid workers, many of whom had promised raises withdrawn earlier this year.

  • Want to go? The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. March 21 at 2107 Hillandale Road, and the rally starts at 5:30 p.m.

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