RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The end of a pandemic-era free school lunch program is putting a strain on schools across the country. The federal free meal program is gone and now families have to pay up if they don’t qualify for free meals– but that’s become harder than ever.
A survey of districts that charge for meals by the School Nutrition Association found 97 percent were facing an increase in unpaid meal debt because of the loss of the federal pandemic waiver allowing all schools to offer free meals to all students.
Diana Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson with SNA, said families are now having a harder time paying for lunch.
“It’s gotten worse through the pandemic,” said Pratt-Heavner.
Nationwide, SNA calculates more than $19 million has accrued in student lunch debt. In North Carolina, the Department of Public Instruction last reported there was $1.3 million in student meal debt.
Numbers provided by Wake County Public Schools, showed they had an outstanding balance of $21,891 in unpaid student meals.
Durham Public Schools reported 3,301 students had unpaid meals, totaling $251,149 in school meal debt for the district. That debt represents an average of $76.08 in unpaid meals per student. A district spokesperson tells CBS 17 “unpaid funds are returned to School Nutrition each year from the district’s budget.”
Pratt-Heavner said there are several reasons for the increased debt. The biggest is the application takes into account income and not expenses.
“A family that’s going through a medical crisis or just had a rent increase and is still struggling to make ends meet, they might not qualify for meal benefits, but they’re still having a hard time putting food on the table,” said Pratt-Heaver.
In some cases, SNA has found families are having to choose between adding money to their child’s school lunch account or paying a utility bill.
She said some their surveys show schools are having a hard time getting some families to fill out applications for free meals. In some cases, families are worried about the stigma of asking for help.
“There are students who will choose not to eat if they feel like there’s any kind of shame associated with getting a free school meal,” said Pratt-Heavner.
Pratt-Heavner said children don’t want to be singled out for being eligible for free meals while their classmates now that the federal free food program is gone.
“Research shows that school meals are the healthiest meals that kids are eating today. We want to make sure every student has equal access to healthy school meals to fuel student success,” she said.
SNA is urging Congress to bring back free meals for all students.
“We’re very worried that at the end of the year, a lot of schools will have significant amounts of unpaid meal debt that they need to pay off, and that could cut into education funds for schools,” Pratt-Heavner said.
SNA reports schools are also facing more challenges when it comes to providing food. Their survey found the top three challenges were increasing costs, staff shortages and menu item shortages. Almost every school they surveyed reported facing high costs for the school nutrition program.
Their survey found 43 percent of districts with fewer than 1,000 total students reported staff shortages. Meanwhile, 79 percent of districts with at least 25,000 reported staff shortages.
The most menu challenging items were reported to be breakfast items.
“Congress did step up and provide an additional $0.40 per lunch and $0.15 per breakfast for every school meal served this school year but those funds are set to expire on July 1 and schools are very concerned about their ability to cover costs moving forward,” Pratt-Heavner explained.
While schools receive some reimbursement for the meals they provide, SNA’s survey found an increasing number of schools indicated moderate or serious concern regarding the adequacy of those reimbursement rates. SNA wants Congress to permanently enhance their reimbursement rates.