End of Pandemic Aid Leaves Schools Stuck With Meal Tab

Debt is mounting in districts as Congress doesn't act
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 14, 2023 4:15 PM CST
Pandemic Aid Ends, Leaving Schools Stuck With Meal Tab
   (Getty/Canberk Sezer)

School lunch debt has long been an issue, but there's a twist now. The federal government began providing breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students to help families during the pandemic, regardless of income. The program ended three months ago, the Washington Post reports, and without those reimbursements, some school districts have fresh debt. "We are really concerned about the impact of the debt on the families, but also on schools that are struggling to collect," said Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, per CBS News. The shortage of meal money could eat into education funding, she said.

A survey by the group found that almost all of the 1,230 school nutrition directors who responded are worried about their meal programs, per the Post. "We are experiencing cost increases in food, supplies and labor like we have never seen before, and the meal reimbursement rate is not sufficient to cover the costs," said Katie Wilson of the nonprofit Urban School Food Alliance. The government reimburses schools about $2.60 for each breakfast and about $4.50 for each lunch given students who qualify for free meals. The schools set their own prices for paying students.

Most districts continued supplying the meals when the aid ran out at the end of September, putting them thousands of dollars in debt. "We are witnessing large negative balances in schools since free meals have been discontinued," Wilson said. Some districts have started offering diminished, and less expensive, meals to students who are behind in their payments. Legislation in Congress to make the aid permanent has gone nowhere, per the Post. A state-by-state solution risks inequality. Crystal FitzSimons of the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center said the National School Lunch Program was designed to ensure a child in a poor state would receive the same food as a child in a wealthier state. "The pandemic highlighted how important it is to give all kids access to school meals," she said. (More federal school lunch program stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.