This school year, meals have come at a cost for many students who had become accustomed to receiving free breakfast and lunch during the pandemic — and with the return of those charges, comes the return of school lunch debt.
Many school districts across Michigan returned to charging for school meals this year after federal lawmakers allowed pandemic meal perks to expire. And debts could rack up even faster this year because meal prices have increased due to rising food costs propelled by inflation, creating a perfect storm in the school cafeteria, experts say.
It’s less than a month into the school year for many districts, but Mindy Grant — program manager for No Kid Hungry Michigan, a nonprofit dedicated to ending childhood hunger — said she has already heard that school lunch debt is mounting in Michigan school districts.
“I was just talking to a school (district) yesterday that has over $4,000 already, and they're less than a month into school,” she said in an interview with the Free Press on Thursday.
For the past two school years, meals have been free for all students, eliminating the paperwork required to sign up for the national free and reduced lunch program.
School lunch debt was a talking point for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020, before schools shut down due to the coronavirus, ushering in big changes to school cafeteria operations. She proposed a $1 million grant to forgive lunch debt for districts that applied. The grant came to fruition, but those funds are no longer available, said Diane Golzynski, director of health and nutrition services for the Michigan Department of Education.
This school year, the United States has largely returned to the old school breakfast and lunch system, charging students for meals unless they qualify based on income, which requires families to fill out an application. To advocates like Grant, the paperwork is a barrier between children and the nourishing meals that keep them healthy.
“There's always people out there that qualify that aren't applying,” she said. “But what's really a big issue is the families who are kind of in between, who have had the benefit of having those free meals for the last two years.”
Some districts, including Detroit Public Schools Community District, can continue serving lunch and breakfast at no charge for every student because they qualify under what’s called the community eligibility provision, which allows for universal meals in low-income areas.
But other districts do not qualify.
Maya Lawrence estimates that her family saved thousands of dollars in the pandemic thanks to universal meals served by her daughter’s district, Gull Lake Community Schools in west Michigan. During the height of the pandemic, her husband was out of work for a long stretch when the factory where he works closed.
“Money was rough,” she said. And the meals helped a lot: not just financially, but they also saved time in the morning getting ready, without having to worry about packing a lunch.
This year, Gull Lake families, just like families across the country, will have to return to paying for meals. Some districts, including Gull Lake, have not raised meal prices. Others have had to: Livonia Public Schools, for example, raised prices by 25 cents on all meals and raised milk prices by 10 cents.
In Livonia, if a student doesn’t have money in their meal account, they can still charge for a meal up to four times, according to district spokeswoman Stacy Jenkins. However, after the fourth time of charging a meal without repaying, they’ll receive an alternate meal of graham crackers, string cheese, fruit, a vegetable and milk. Livonia isn’t alone in providing alternate meals: Utica Community Schools, L’Anse Creuse and other districts have similar systems, according to their websites.
But some argue the alternate meal system for students who don’t repay debt creates a stigma against students whose families are struggling financially.
“We are conscious that this process could result in a student being singled out for non-payment,” Jenkins wrote in an emailed statement. “We are currently reviewing this practice to determine a better way to manage the alternate meals that result from five non-payments.”
Jenkins added that a student in debt may also alert the district that their family needs help.
“When a lunch account is in the negative after four times, this triggers to the staff that there may be a need, so they reach out to the families to find out how we can assist,” she wrote. “This is an important checkpoint for our schools to be alerted when a family may be experiencing hardship.”
Grant polled Michigan food service directors recently and 67% of those who responded said they are experiencing a high volume of student lunch debt. Some districts are creating angel funds to help families who can’t pay for meals, but that’s a just a bandage on a bigger problem, she said, alluding to growing calls to make meals free for all U.S. students.
It is a very difficult time for school food service directors, who strive to ensure no kids are going hungry but whose budgets are becoming increasingly strained by inflation.
“There's all these families and school food service directors who are already stressed and just trying to get by in the day and now they have this huge added weight to try to figure this piece out,” she said.
Lawrence agrees. She said she also believes meals should be free for all. And the last two years have proven to her that it’s feasible for the government to make it so.
This year, she is making her daughter’s meals. Her family is in a better financial place, she said.
“My family is in a situation where we don't have any kind of food insecurity, but that's not true of all people,” she said. “It's really unfortunate but that's the kind of world we live in.”
Contact Lily Altavena: Laltavena@freepress.com.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: School lunch debt returns to Michigan cafeterias as pandemic aid ends