School lunch debt back under microscope after COVID funding ends
One unexpected consequence of the pandemic was temporary relief from school lunch bills. Now, lunch bills are back on the minds of parents, administrators, and students.
The Sioux Falls School District recently reported a total student lunch debt over $106,000 – a district record.
Over the course of the pandemic, federal money was distributed to schools via the American Rescue Plan Act to cover the cost of lunches. That program ended this summer.
Mark Fonder is president of the Hungry Hearts Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of student lunch debt.
“We’re trying to bring awareness to change it for the state to make sure that these kids get a meal," Fonder said. "Our end goal would be that federal government, state government, someone would try and help us realize this is a big concern and a big problem.”
Hungry Hearts is currently raising money to help pay off student lunch debts. Fonder said students need food to be successful.
“Sending a kid to school and expecting them to learn on an empty stomach is very difficult, and kids have so much other stress in their home life with everything going on," Fonder said. "Worrying about where your next meal is coming from is a big concern that we have and a kid shouldn’t have to worry about it.”
In a statement, the Sioux Falls School District stressed, despite written policy, no student would be without a meal in the district, and alternative meals in alignment with USDA nutrition standards including milk will still be given to students with negative accounts.
Figures from the district indicated 42% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and the bulk of the debt comes from students not in the reduced lunch program.