Meal debt is soaring after universal free lunch ended. How are Midwest states responding?

April 3, 2023, 5 a.m. ·

A grinning young girl looks out over her school lunch tray, with a milk carton and an apple.
Amelia, a 5-year-old student at Oakville Elementary School, reacts while talking to a friend during lunch. Officials in this St. Louis-area school district have seen meal debt increase this year — at about four times the level is was before the pandemic. (Photo by Brian Munoz, St. Louis Public Radio)

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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 bouncing 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 school meals were free for all students.

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

Her observation bears out in national data. When the program was 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.

These changes would be worrying in just one district, but they’re trends that are multiplying in school districts across the country.

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 Midwest are reporting signs that families might be struggling to afford school meals.

Now lawmakers from the state level to the highest branches of the government are looking for ways to fix a growing problem. A handful of states have passed 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.

An aerial picture of a school lunch tray. A child holds a sandwich.
A student at Oakville Elementary School eats his lunch. 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. (Photo by Brian Munoz, St. Louis Public Radio)

Signs of a problem

Now that families have to pay for lunches again, and low-income families have to apply to qualify for free or reduced price meals, schools are seeing cracks in the system.

The Mehlville School District is back to 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.

Just like those small changes add up to a lot of kids in the Mehlville School District, 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.

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 lunch debt.

In the Sioux City Community School District in Iowa, students currently have about $22,000 dollars in debt. Rich Luze runs nutrition for the district and said the government could have handled this change better.

“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.

School nutrition professionals and experts say a few trends have led to fewer families qualifying for the subsidized or free meals. 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 dollars 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

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.

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. 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, Colorado.

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 bring even more in.

“This is a really wonderful thing, because it increases the number of schools that can opt to offer free meals to all their students,” FitzSimons said. “... but 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.”

President Joe Biden requested $15 billion dollars 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.

Because states or schools currently have to fund these programs themselves, not all eligible districts choose to participate. In the U.S, about 75% of eligible schools chose to adopt the program last school year and some of the states with the lowest rates of adoption are in the Midwest.

A young boy looks at the camera, an out-of-focus young girl is between him and the camera.
Elston, a 6-year-old Oakville Elementary School student, looks toward a classmate during lunch. The USDA recently proposed lowering the threshold for districts to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision — allowing 25% of the student population to be high-need, down from the current 40% requirement. (Photo by Brian Munoz, St. Louis Public Radio)

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 has multiple bills to try to implement universal free school meals. Like some other states that have sought to do this, the policies try to incentivize more school districts to sign up for the community 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.”

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