SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Before the COVID-19 pandemic, unpaid student meal debt was a concern in U.S. schools. Now, 2 1/2 years after the pandemic started and now that two years of free student meals have stopped, unpaid meal costs could again increase.

The School Nutrition Association reported in 2019 that 75% of responding districts had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. Forty-three percent said that debt increased over the prior year. Unpaid meal debt had increased by 70% from the 2012-2013 school year.

“We’ve seen a big increase in unpaid (meals),” Rhonda Ramsdell, the president of the School Nutrition Association of South Dakota, said. Ramsdell works in the Meade School District.

As of Sept. 27, the district has more than $3,000 in unpaid meals, Ramsdell said. “Prior to COVID we were running at about $4,500 a year over the course to the end of the school year,” she said.

Ramsdell said she’s heard similar stories from many of the nutrition officials involved in the SNA in the state.

The Watertown School District is “hitting that point of the year” when some lunch bills don’t get paid, said superintendent Jeff Danielsen said.

Some families may pay for a chunk of meals at the beginning of the year, but now, it may be more difficult to pay, Danielsen said.

During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, families did not pay for school meals. The federal government said meals would no longer be free at the start of the 2022-2023 school year.

The change has contributed to some of the unpaid meals, Ramsdell said.

“…parents don’t realize they have to pay,” Ramsdell said. That’s especially true for parents who had kindergarten and first grade students in the past two years, she said.

The other factor is that parents may make a little too much to qualify for free and reduced meals, Ramsdell said.

Danielson said the costs of meals have increased and while some families may not meet the income thresholds for free and reduced meals, inflation is lowering the buying ability of that income. That can make it difficult for families to pay for school meals, he said.

Ramsdell and Danielson said it’s important that families apply for free and reduced meals.

The Watertown district began sharing the message about the end to free meals and the need to apply for free and reduced meals last spring, Danielsen said.

A possible increase in the unpaid meal debt was one reason the school district shared the message early and in a variety of ways, he said.

On average about 30% of the Watertown student enrollment qualifies for free and reduced meals, Danielsen said.

So far, this year’s applications are in line with an average year, he said. “We feel that we are starting to hit the number of applications that we had before COVID,” Danielsen said.

But families still need to continue to apply.

Ramsdell said in her district and in those involved in the SNA, unpaid balances are not likely to lessen during the school year.

“I’m not seeing an end to it,” Ramsdell said. “Everyday, new families fall into the category. It’s really concerning.”

Students who have meal debt continue to receive the same meal as any other student, Ramsdell and Danielsen said.

“We want to keep kids eating (nutritious) meals,” Danielsen said.

School districts will reach out to families with meal debt.

Ramsdell said members of the Meade district staff spent 36 hours contacting families during one week.

The goal is for families to pay all the debt or at least some of it, Ramsdell said.

It could be a case where a family is able to pay $50 one time a month and then pay another $50 in the later part of the month, Danielsen said.

Both stressed that families should contact the school district if they are having a tough time paying for meals.

According to the Education Data Initiative in 2021, South Dakota had $1.31 million in student meal debt.

Watertown has a donation fund it can use to pay off student meal debt, Danielsen said.

Ramsdell said donations are used in many school districts to help pay for student meal debt.

But there is a better solution, she said.

Ramsdell and several other school nutrition officials were in Washington, D.C., this past summer to advocate for free school lunches for all public school students.

“Kids need to eat in order to learn,” Ramsdell said. School districts don’t have to ask what Johnny’s parents make in order for him to check out a book; income should not be a factor in accessing meals, she said.

Ramsdell said the federal government through USDA spends about $14 billion a year on the school nutrition program. That’s a lot of money, she said, but for $10 billion more, every student could be fed for free. The most important focus should be lunches, she said.

The USDA said it spent about $13.9 billion in FY 2020 and $12.4 billion in FY 2021 on breakfast and lunch programs in schools.  The FY 2020 was less than in 2019.