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Schools ended universal free lunch. Now meal debt is soaring

Oakville Elementary School students go through the lunch line on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Oakville, Mo.
Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Oakville Elementary School students go through the lunch line on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, in Oakville, Mo.

Pat Broz has been serving meals to students in the Mehlville School District outside of St. Louis for almost 30 years. On a recent day at Oakville Elementary School, the kindergarteners sliding trays toward the register were all dressed up for school pictures. She complimented their outfits as she rang up their lunches.

Yet this year, Broz said fewer students have been coming through her line compared to when in-school meals were free for all students for two school years during the pandemic.

"There was a lot more kids," she said. "Everybody wanted breakfast and lunch."

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Her observation bears out in national data. When meals were free last year, schools served more than 80 million more meals compared to the year before the pandemic.

Broz has noticed something else — when she rings up the kids she can see that they owe money for meals they haven't paid for. In fact, students in her district have about four times more meal debt than they typically had before the pandemic.

This school year started with an abrupt switch from pandemic-era free meals to a paid system. As the months have gone by, school districts across the U.S. are reporting signs that families might be struggling to afford school meals.

Meal debt is one strong indicator. Most schools won't deny a student a meal even if they can't pay, but will track their debt and try to collect from families throughout the school year.

And this year school officials say meal debt is reaching levels they have never seen. A recent survey from the School Nutrition Association found school districts had more than $19 million in unpaid meal debt, with the Midwest and Great Plains reporting the highest rates of meal debt.

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Now lawmakers at the state and federal level are looking for ways to fix a growing problem. Students who eat regular meals at school tend to eat an overall healthier diet, and do better at school,according research.

A handful of states have passed laws mandating universal free meals for students and many more are considering similar legislation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed an expansion to a free meal program, to try to feed significantly more students at high-need schools.

Signs of a problem

When universal free school meals aren't covered, schools instead provide free or reduced price lunch for families in need. But that process is complicated enough that some families fall through the cracks. And that means kids show up at school hungry for lunch but with no way to pay for it.

In the Sioux City Community School District in Iowa this spring, students had about $22,000 in debt. Rich Luze, who runs nutrition for the district, said the government could have handled the ending of the free meal benefit better.

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"Giving it for two years, or whatever, and then abruptly stopping it, instead of phasing it down... that could have helped families prepare to readjust and rethink," Luze said.

Instead it looks like fewer families are qualifying for those free and reduced priced meals.

In Mehlville, the school district is serving about as many meals as it did before the pandemic, but the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals has dropped from 30% to 26%, said Katie Gegg, director of school food and nutrition services in the district.

"Which doesn't sound like a lot, but with a district of 10,000 students, that's 400 students that might need the support," Gegg said.

Changes all across the country are adding up too. Preliminary data on the national lunch program shows schools served almost 130 million fewer free or reduced price meals in the fall of 2022 compared to the same time period right before the pandemic.

School nutrition professionals and experts say a few factors have lead to the trend. Many families didn't know they needed to reapply after two years of automatic free meals. Gegg in St. Louis also said the application can be confusing, especially for the many families in her district whose first language is not English.

On top of that, a few years of rising wages could have pushed some families out of the program. To get free meals this year, a family of four has to make less than $36,000 a year. Although the USDA adjusts that number for inflation, food and housing prices are increasing, said Crystal FitzSimons, a director for the Food Research and Action Center.

"Those place a tremendous amount of stress on a household food budget and household budgets overall," FitzSimons said.

Policy solutions and funding struggles

Policymakers are looking at these changing numbers and searching for ways to get closer to the pandemic-era free meals.

California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico have all passed legislation to make school meals free for all kids. Other states have passed temporary legislation and many more are considering similar policies.

A student at Oakville Elementary School eats his lunch on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at the school in Oakville, Mo.
/ Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
Brian Munoz/St. Louis Public Radio
A student at Oakville Elementary School eats his lunch on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, at the school in Oakville, Mo.

The Biden administration is also looking for solutions. The USDA proposed a new rule to expand something called the Community Eligibility Provision. It allows schools and districts with a lot of high-need students to serve free meals to all of their kids, without families having to specifically apply. The USDA wants to lower the threshold of high-need students from 40% to 25%, allowing more schools to qualify for the program.

"We're providing greater flexibility, more participation in the program, resources that take a little of the pressure off," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, while announcing the plan at a school in Greeley, Colo.

Before the pandemic, about one in three school districts in the U.S. were already serving free meals to all students through community eligibility. FitzSimons says this proposal could motivate more schools to opt in.

But she warns, "it doesn't actually increase the amount of federal funding that the school would receive. So we're still hoping that maybe Congress would put in additional funding."

Because states or schools currently have to fund these programs themselves, not all eligible districts choose to participate. In the U.S overall, about 75% of eligible schools chose to adopt the program last school year, but some states had much lower rates of adoption.

For instance, in Nebraska, about 12% of eligible schools took part in the program last year, the second-lowest rate in the U.S.

Nebraska's legislature is considering legislation that would nudge more school districts to sign up for the community eligibility program, to maximize the amount of federal funding schools receive.

State Sen. Eliot Bostar, a Democrat who represents part of Lincoln and sponsored one of the bills, said the biggest hurdle in his state will be the price. The state legislature's fiscal analyst estimates the policy will cost more than $55 million in its first year.

"It's my responsibility to convince my colleagues in the state legislature that this is a worthwhile investment for Nebraska to make in its students and its families," Bostar said.

Bostar said he thinks the free meals during the pandemic demonstrated the value of a program like this.

"It's difficult to have a family these days, it's expensive," he said. "And so anything that we can do to make it a little bit easier to lighten the load or ease the burden is worthwhile."

President Joe Biden requested $15 billion over the next 10 years in his 2024 budget to fund expanded access to the Community Eligibility Program. The administration says this would expand the program to an additional 9 million children around the country.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Copyright 2023 Harvest Public Media

Kate Grumke