Lawmakers push for school lunch funding

RALEIGH When it's lunchtime inside Underwood Elementary in Raleigh and other most other school cafeterias, hungry children line up for their midday meal. But a growing number of children in the state's public schools see food like pizza, steamed squash, fresh fruit, mixed vegetables and yogurt through sad eyes.

Cheryl Cunningham, a Wake student's parent who sometimes works in her school's cafeteria, know the look.

"Some are ashamed to come through the lunch line because they don't have money to pay for their meals," she told Eyewitness News. "Small children will cry when you try to whisper to them, 'tell mommy or daddy to send you some money.' It's just a sad situation."

Advocates for healthier student meals say it's especially troubling, now that schools are working to make more nutritious choices available across the state. They worry about rising rates of childhood obesity and other problems linked to poor diet options.

But they tell us it costs a lot more money to get healthy, non-processed food like fresh fruit and vegetables into North Carolina public school cafeterias. In fact, they say, those increased food costs last year put 87 out of 115 school districts in the red.

"Costs are increasing," said state schools Superintendent June Atkinson. "As far as distribution, and as far as the cost of the food. So we have many pressures on the cafeterias of our state, and we want the General Assembly to help us out."

State Senator Vernon Malone of Wake County and Representative Doug Yongue of Scotland County are working to get more legislative funding for child nutrition programs.

During a midday press conference at the state legislature Yongue said, "Somehow, I have tried and I'm going to keep trying to convince my cohorts on Appropriations, that we pay now or pay later. We're saving money by addressing this issue now, (rather) than add to Medicare, Medicaid, all kinds of health problems down the road."

The cost, for K-5 schools alone, is $20 million, or about 25 cents per plate. There are more than 1100 elementary schools in North Carolina.

Cunningham hopes the state lawmakers can visit some of those schools, to understand her concerns. "We're hoping and praying that they will see the need and do something about it, right now. Because it needs to be done, yesterday!" Cunningham said.

School administrators, parents--all the people who believe in healthier cafeteria choices--hope state lawmakers get the message.

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