MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — In North Carolina, school lunch debt has topped more than $1 million in just the first few months of school.
During the pandemic, schools offered free lunches to all students, but that’s not the case anymore after Congress didn’t renew a waiver that gave students free lunches during the pandemic.
"So many families really came to rely during the pandemic on free meals for their kids to keep the family well-fed and students ready to learn," Diane Pratt-Heavner, School Nutrition Association spokesperson, said. "So, it's a real shame to lose this benefit, particularly at a time when so many families are struggling with higher costs."
SNA advocated for Congress to continue serving free lunch to kids in addition to a number of school districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Many students’ parents fall in the middle of making too much money to qualify for free school lunches but not enough to pay for school lunches every day.
Under federal rules, a family of four earning $36,075 or less is eligible for free meals and one earning $51,338 or less is eligible for reduced-price meals.
"Just because a family has an income that exceeds the threshold for free or reduced-price meals, that family might be struggling with high health care costs or another emergency that is taken away a significant portion of their income," Pratt-Heavner said.
When the school year ends, the average school lunch debt per child in North Carolina will be $170 and $168 in South Carolina.
The Education Data Initiative said, between the two states, that's a total of around $22.5 million every school year.
WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to WCNC Charlotte by emailing email@example.com.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the second largest school district in North Carolina, said its students who have debt owe an average of $35 per student as of right now. In total, across the district, about 5,000 students owe a little more than $181,000 collectively.
Parents get an email to remind them to pay the outstanding balance, but even if a child is in a negative balance, the district said all children eat.
A district spokesperson said the community is asking how they can help.
A district spokesperson for Rock Hill Schools in South Carolina said they also have donors who cover unpaid debt for the most part. The district is looking for more supporters.
Rock Hill Schools also will not refuse food to children with negative balances.