School districts face rising student meal debt, as additional SNAP benefits expire

Michael Perchick Image
Thursday, March 2, 2023
School districts face rising student meal debt
March 1 is the final day of temporary SNAP benefits put in place during the pandemic, which will impact nearly 30 million Americans.

Wednesday is the final day of temporary SNAP benefits put in place during the pandemic, which will impact nearly 30 million Americans.

It comes as inflation remains elevated, forcing families to further stretch their budgets.

"What we hear from the local agencies that we support is that more and more families are struggling between, you know, just people that lost jobs during the pandemic and the rising price of groceries and everything," said Jenny Shafer, co-coordinator of the Durham CROP Hunger Walk.

The 49th annual Durham CROP Hunger Walk will take place on April 2nd, with a goal of raising $200,000. In Durham Public Schools, 64% of students are on free or reduced lunch.

"It should be a fundamental thing that we provide them. And our district's been very forward-thinking, and in January, the Board passed a resolution that we will not deny a child a hot meal," said James Keaton, Director of Child Nutrition at Durham Public Schools.

Keaton said the student meal debt district wide is now about $300,000, a figure that is expected to near $500,000 by the end of the semester. Statewide, the student meal debt skyrocketed to close 2022, jumping from $1.3 million at the beginning of November to $3.1 million by the end of December.

"At the end of the school year, that meal debt that's been uncollected goes back to the district and there could be things like a teaching assistant position that can't be funded because of this meal debt," said Andrew Harrell, Communications and Program Manager for Carolina Hunger Initiative. He said roughly one in six children face food insecurity in the state, a figure that is above the national average.

While the General Assembly is covering reduced price co-pay this school year, Harrell, along with other advocates, are urging lawmakers to include funding for free meals for students in the upcoming budget.

"Children are being held back by hunger right now. And we know if they had access to no-cost meals in schools, they would be doing better in school. Their performance grades would get better, their behavior would get better, their attendance, their health, they'd be doing better," said Morgan Wittman Gramann, Executive Director of North Carolina Alliance for Health.

"We're looking at appropriating some funds to help deal with it because we know that nutrition for children is critical. Breakfast and lunch, many children rely on the schools for most of their nutrition in the day. So we've got to find a way to do it," said Gov. Cooper during a Read Across America event in Raleigh Tuesday.

Keaton said the district is working with families to try and reduce debt, as well as encourage families who qualify to apply for the program.

"If they feel that they have a need for the benefits to go ahead an apply. A lot of people feel that they may not be eligible, but circumstances change during the school year. One parent may lose a job, a parent's income may drop. They may add a family member or have a grandparent who moves in the house, which changes the number of people in the household. So we encourage people to continue to apply. We've finished our verification process for the year where we have to verify a certain percentage, so right now as students apply, we accept the applications at face value," Keaton explained.

Study hints healthier school lunch can reduce obesity

Last month, the district received a $122,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture to purchase food from local farmers. With the additional SNAP benefits expiring, Keaton said they are bracing for an uptick in families seeking assistance.

"You hear people talk about a financial cliff, right. And I feel like we're there. And a hunger cliff. We are there. We are seeing families who are hard-working struggling just trying to make it through and just need a little bit of support right now, and (for) those children - that's not their responsibility," said Wittman Gramann.

Families across the Triangle will see and end to extra SNAP benefits used to help cover food costs during the pandemic.