For two years, schools across the country provided free school lunches to students, regardless of income, as a part of COVID-19 assistance passed by Congress to reduce food insecurity.
Approximately 30 million children were getting those free meals, however, Republicans blocked another extension of the program last summer, leaving families to scramble to provide for their students.
In addition, low-income parents who may qualify must go back through the difficult process of filling out forms and applying for free or reduced lunch.
“It is a barrier to have to fill out a form. Some parents are very busy and have a lot going on. Others, like immigrant families, might not speak English and don’t really know how to navigate the system,” Ailen Arreaza, co-director of the nonprofit parent advocacy group ParentsTogether, told TODAY. “Now they have to figure out how to fill out these forms, how and where to turn them in — all of that it’s going to impact those families so much more.”
According to the US Census Bureau, the free school lunch program helped millions of children throughout the pandemic, with child poverty going down by 46% in 2021 alone.
On top of the program, COVID-19 packages passed by President Biden supplied families across the U.S. with stimulus checks to help stay afloat, and a monthly child tax credit that was poised to lift more than 137,000 North Carolina children out of poverty.
Now, school districts are seeing an increase in unpaid meal debt; with a survey by the School Nutrition Association finding 97 percent of school districts were facing an uptick in unpaid meal debt due to the loss of the federal pandemic aid.
“In addition to kids losing free lunch, some families may have to pay even more when they’re already struggling so much right now,” Arreaza explained to TODAY. “Parents want to love, care and support their kids, but when we take things away, like free school lunch, and make it even more expensive for them to make lunch, it’s really hard for parents to care for their kids.”
According to the SNA, more than $19 million has accrued in student lunch debt across the country. North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction reported more than $1.3 million has accrued in student meal debt.
CBS17 reported that numbers provided by Wake County Public Schools, showed an outstanding balance of $21,891 in unpaid student meals, while 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, according to CBS17.