Unpaid school meal debts are rising amid a national food insecurity struggle, the Associated Press reported.
About 850 school districts reported having a total of $19.2 million in debt from unpaid meals.
It comes as increased SNAP benefits and school meal waivers from the government have come to an end.
A rising school meal debt is spotlighting how food insecurity is impacting America’s children.
Schools rarely turn away hungry students, and the increasing debts for unpaid school meals paint a troubling picture as federal funds for food programs cease, according to the Associated Press.
In 2021, some 33.8 million people across the nation lived in food-insecure households, including 5 million children, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“It’s hard to focus in class when I’m hungry. Food helps me pay attention to what I’m learning,” 10-year-old Fabian Aguirre told the AP. Aguirre said he eats the school breakfast but often finds himself hungry in class before lunch, especially if he didn’t have anything to eat at home in the morning.
During the pandemic, Congress made school lunches free to all students, but that aid expired last year. The COVID boost to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits also ended recently, sending some recipients off a “hunger cliff,” Insider previously reported.
The return to the prior system – in which families in need filed paperwork to demonstrate why they needed reduced-price lunches – caught some families who had gotten used to paperless free lunches off guard, according to the Associated Press.
National PTA President Anna King told the outlet that “families were left scrambling and confused” when the free meals ended since many hadn’t filled out or weren’t aware of the necessary paperwork to continue the benefits.
A recent School Nutrition Association report surveyed over 1,000 school districts to assess the impact of the end of the federal waivers. A majority of districts who reported they charge for meals said the loss of the waivers preceded an increase in unpaid meal debt, according to the report.
Nearly 850 school districts reported having school meal debt of $19.2 million in total, according to the report.
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