(NewsNation) — As the school year is winding down for students, this one was the first for many families who had to navigate feeding their kids after a pandemic-era plan providing free school meals ended last summer. When the program was sunsetted, it left many with the tough choice to take on debt to cover meal costs.
According to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), unpaid meal debt in 847 school districts across the country adds up to at least $19 million. It’s too much for some schools to chew, as they consume new levels of debt that vary across districts.
A Texas teacher told the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) that parents are simply not making payments for school meals. The educator said during the first three weeks of the school year, their small school district of around 3,000 students had a negative meal balance of roughly $20,000.
“It is completely heartbreaking to tell a student, a child, they cannot eat when food is all around them and they are hungry,” the teacher told the FRAC.
Most schools will not take away a meal from a student and often track a student’s debt, then try to retrieve the money from the student’s family throughout the school year.
With families that are either ineligible or don’t apply for federal school meal assistance requirements, some states and school districts have struggled to stretch their education funding to manage the debt and keep children fed.
Nearly 98% of schools that don’t offer free meals to all students district-wide reported unpaid meal debt, according to the SNA. Meanwhile, 33% of districts that do provide free meals also reported unpaid meal debt.
School districts surveyed by SNA had an average of $6,000 in unpaid school meal debt, with schools in the Midwest and the Mountain Plains reporting the highest presence of debt. Ninty-six percent of surveyed school districts said the loss of the federal pandemic waiver for free meals caused a surge in unpaid meal charges.
A child nutrition program director in Louisiana told the group that students have begged for food.
“It didn’t matter if someone had eaten from the plate. They were hungry. Our students can’t help their home situations,” the director said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a FRAC representative told NewsNation that three out of four school districts reported struggling with school meal debt.
“School meals debt can occur when students who are not certified to receive free school meals arrive in the cafeteria without cash in hand or in their school meals account to pay for their meals or for the ‘reduced-price’ copayment,” spokesperson Jordan Baker said.
When the pandemic struck the U.S. and shut down schools, many children no longer had access to nutritious meals.
The USDA issued free lunch waivers from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through 2021. Last school year, the department began reimbursing schools to extend the free meal program one more year, and 90% of schools participated.
Without worrying about payment, more children opted to eat at school.
During the 2021-2022 school year, more than 15.5 million children received a school breakfast and nearly 30 million children received a school lunch on average per day, according to data from FRAC. The year prior, 1.6 million students received a free breakfast and 10.1 million receive a lunch.
The program expired last summer, and many schools reported they couldn’t afford the high costs to keep up with the free meal demand, with 99.8% of programs citing cost as a challenge to their operations, according to the SNA.
At the time it expired, Dr. Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, told NewsNation smaller organizations were especially hit hard.
“A lot of small, faith-based, community-based organizations also do summer meals, and a lot of them have said no, not this year because it’s just not stable enough for us. We don’t know whether we’re going to be able to feed all children or not. So for the children that come to these sites, it’s going to be catastrophic,” Wilson told NewsNation.
Some students are still eligible for free or discounted lunches at school. In this current school year, a family of four earning $36,075 or less is eligible for free meals or one earning $51,338 or less is eligible for reduced-price meals, SNA said.
Multiple states, including California, Maine and Colorado, made free school meals permanent after the pandemic meal program ended. Other states like Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont, extended free school meals for the 2022-23 school year.
The Biden administration in October announced a goal to expand access to free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.
For other resources and food assistance programs, reach out to USDA’s National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (for English) or 1-877-8-HAMBRE (for Spanish). To find free summer meals for kids near you, visit USDA’s Find Meals for Kids site. In most states, you can also call 211 for help and services.