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Nonprofits talk school lunch debt increase after pandemic assistance program ends

A federal program made school meals free for more than 50 million students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now school lunch debt is racking up in many districts.

ATLANTA — We know inflation is really hurting your bank account, especially for metro Atlanta parents who are struggling to put food on the table. Parents and caretakers are now paying for school lunches for the first time in two years.

A federal program previously made school meals free for more than 50 million students during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that funding is no longer there and lunch debt is racking up across many school districts. 

11Alive reached out to several local non-profit organizations that provide meals and food assistance to students. They all said demands for help are soaring. 

Alessandra Ferrara-Miller founded the Atlanta-based non-profit All for Lunch, Inc., and she said what happens to many kids in need while trying to eat a meal at school is something no parent wants his or her child to experience.

“A lot of the kids are now having to go to the lunch line and getting to the end and realizing that they don't have funds in their account, and they're having their meals taken away in front of their peers," Ferrara-Miller said.

All for Lunch paid $130,000 in December to wipe put student lunch debt in several schools. 

“Now that we've come back and these waivers have expired, we're seeing an increase two, three, four times at schools throughout every county," Ferrara-Miller said. 

“Let's not have our families, our kids suffer with something like hunger when that's one of the basic needs that we as a community should be helping meet," Cpt. Jamaal Ellis with the Salvation Army PeachCrest Corps added. 

Ellis said the organization runs an after-school program that used to give children just snacks before the federal school meal program ended.

“They're getting here hungrier than normal and things like that, so we’re moving towards providing full meals and a snack for kids," he explained.

Meanwhile, Alexis Bylander with the non-profit Food Research & Action Center is urging Congress to reinstate the program. 

The non-profit provided a comprehensive analysis of the impact of the pandemic on participation in both breakfast and lunch across three school years: 2018-2019, 2019-2020, and 2020-2021 and summarized the results in this report

“We're always concerned about lunch shaming that would happen because of school debt, school unpaid school meal debt in the cafeteria, and that's why we think nationwide healthy school meals for all policy is appropriate," Bylander said.

“These kids have no control over the financial circumstances of their home and their parents, and to have them go to school and be hungry and for some of these kids living with food insecurity, this might be their only guaranteed meal of the day," Ferrara-Miller said. 

Six major school districts replied to 11Alive on how the demand is for school lunches and how they're addressing it. All of the districts, expect for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said they're seeing an increase in parents signing their kids up for free or reduced lunches. 

Gwinnett County Public Schools spokesperson Bernard Watson sent 11Alive the following statement: 

"During the pandemic school districts were granted federal waivers that allowed districts to provide meals at no charge to all students. Now that the waivers are no longer available, things are returning to the way they were before the pandemic, meaning students and families who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals will continue to receive those meal benefits. Families that don’t qualify for free and reduced-priced meals are required to pay for those meals. Parents can add money to their child’s account via MyPaymentPlus

In addition, breakfast is available, at no charge, at all Title I schools for all students. Breakfast is also available, at no charge, for any students who have a reduced-price meal status at all non-Title I school locations."

Fulton County Public Schools sent 11Alive a statement: 

“All For Lunch generously paid the school lunch debt for students in Fulton County Schools through the end of the school year in 2022. Therefore, current debt from this past week of returning to school is negligible."

DeKalb County Public Schools sent us this statement:

"DeKalb County School District Nutrition Services encouraged families to complete a Free and Reduced application for the 2022-2023 school year. In addition, 75 schools are Community Eligibility Schools that receive meals at no cost. The current Free and Reduced lunch enrollment is approximately 79%, which has helped to minimize school lunch debt."

Forsyth County Public Schools has set up a page for people to donate to students in need of school lunches through the Dining With Dignity Program.

Clayton County School District sent 11Alive this statement:

"Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS) recognizes the challenges created for families across our county, state, and nation. Clayton County Public Schools participates in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Program which allows every school in our district to offer free meals (breakfast and lunch) at no cost to our students or their families. CCPS’s participation in the CEP Program is certified through June 30, 2025."

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