With no guaranteed free meals, Kansas City students are racking up thousands in school lunch debt
After two years of free meals, students had to pay for lunch after starting this school year. Now, fewer students are buying lunch and meal debt is piling up for Kansas City area schools.
Lunchtime at Meadow Lane Elementary is filled with the buzz of excited children as students shuffle through the line with their trays, shouting over each other as they reach for a serving of spaghetti and meatballs or veggies to fill their plates.
At the end of the line, kids type in a code to pay for their lunch — an unfamiliar step after two years of free lunches.
During the pandemic, the federal government issued waivers that allowed all school districts to offer free meals to all students. Congress let the program expire last fall.
Lori Danella, the Lee’s Summit School District's nutrition director, said families had some trouble adjusting to lunch payments.
“When that first call went out, I swear all of our phones lit up. ‘Why? Why do we owe anything? Meals are free,’” Danella said. “It was really hard, and it took a good three to four weeks to get these parents on board and get them back in the same routine.”
The district’s nutrition team sends weekly emails and calls to let parents know if their child’s account is in the negative. Since the payment model resumed, school lunch debt has spiked — students owed $60,050 as of April 5. Danella said that’s three times what students usually owed at the end of a pre-pandemic year.
A recent survey from the School Nutrition Association found school districts had more than $19 million in unpaid meal debt. School districts across the Kansas City area have seen soaring student lunch debt — students in the Shawnee Mission School District, for example, owe nearly $110,000.
Fallout of the end of pandemic-era relief
Fewer students are buying lunch at school since paid lunches resumed. A survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that the share of schools with more than half of students using the program dropped from 84% to 69% just months into the 2022-2023 school year.
Danella said 90% of students were getting their meals at school in the Lee’s Summit School District last year — a number she says is “unbelievable” for a suburban school. Now, she says schools are serving only about 50 to 60% of their students.
In the Shawnee Mission School District, nutrition director Grace Liss said schools serve 3,000 fewer meals a day than they did last year. The school district does have some relief to offer families — a pilot program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows Kansas schools to directly certify students for free and reduced lunch based on their Medicaid eligibility data.
Liss said the district serves more reduced or free lunches than ever before — but some students fall just short of qualifying.
“For a middle school and high school student, the meal price is $3, and for some families, $3 a day is too much,” Liss said. “The families that we are unable to give meal benefits to, when we look at their applications they're missing out by just a few dollars.”
Other school districts struggle to get families to fill out the application to qualify for free and reduced lunch. They haven’t had to apply to the program in two years, and many face barriers.
Rising wages have also pushed some families over of threshold for free and reduced lunch even as higher food and housing costs stretch their budgets. A family of four can’t make more than $36,000 a year and qualify for free lunches this year.
Danella said families who have never been in need before may also find it hard to ask for help.
“Many of the families are struggling because with the fuel prices, with utility prices, with grocery prices, it seems like school meals are at the bottom of their list,” Danella said. “That's their lowest priority because they know we're gonna feed their kids no matter what.”
Students in the Shawnee Mission School District with a negative balance of more than $75 at the end of a semester have their debt turned over to a collections agency. The district uses donations to keep students below that threshold, but it can’t cover all of the district’s debt.
Push for universal free school lunch
Nutrition experts are pushing for a return to pandemic-era free meals to keep kids fed and debt-free. States like California, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota have already passed legislation ensuring free lunches for all students.
More school districts could also offer free meals to their students under a new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would expand the Community Eligibility Provision. The program allows school districts with a large population of high-needs students to make all their lunches free. In the Kansas City area, Kansas City Public Schools and the Hickman Mills School District offer universal free lunch under that program. The move would lower the threshold of 40% high-needs students to 25%.
Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the advocacy group Food Research and Action Center, said just because families don’t qualify for free lunches doesn’t mean they don’t struggle to make ends meet.
“Offering free meals to all students is really a game-changer — for kids who are able to access the meals that they need throughout the school day, for families to help stretch their household food budget, and for schools who are able to make sure that all of their students are well-nourished and in the classroom ready to learn,” FitzSimons said.
FitzSimons said free meals also mean less paperwork for already understaffed nutrition workers — plus, no school meal debt.
Liss at Shawnee Mission, said it also takes away the stigma of eating a free or reduced price lunch.
“I felt like when meals were free for everybody, it just opened up our cafeteria as more of a safe space that anybody could eat there,” she said. “Everybody's all on the same playing field, and so it just makes the cafeteria environment better.”
Missouri is among several states considering legislation that would make lunch free, but no bill on the issue has made it to a vote.
Danella said many of her district’s families are down an income and need free lunch.
“To me, it's such a misconception because people see Lee’s Summit as an elite community. We have a couple of schools that are over 50% free and reduced,” Danella said. “We're 20% total, but when you look at that overall, those kids are still there — and then there's some that are paid that are still struggling too, so I think there's a need everywhere.”
STLPR's Kate Grumke contributed reporting.