School district, families navigate school lunch debt

Pandemic relief money that ensured students across the country got free lunches at school ran out in June after Congress did not renew fee waivers. Districts in Southeast Minnesota are returning to pre-pandemic school lunch debt.

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Austin Public Schools has about $23,000 in outstanding school lunch debt, according to Mary Weikum, director of food and nutrition services. She says this number is close to what they saw pre-pandemic.

“We can’t say, oh sorry, no food for you. We would never want to do that,” Weikum commented.

65% of Austin Public Schools students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and still get help. But Weikum says there are also many families that don’t quite qualify for the free and reduced program, and still have a hard time affording school lunch.

“It puts us in a little bit of a bind, you know? We don’t have a whole lot of recourse to get this money recouped,” Weikum said.

These include families like Tasha’s in Rochester. Her son is in first grade at Rochester Catholic Schools. On top of tuition and other fees, Tasha pays about $1,000 every few months for school lunches.

“It’s nice to have that hot lunch option because I know it’s going to be nutritional for him,” Tasha said, adding that her son thinks of getting hot lunch as a way to socialize.

She says that money comes out of her grocery budget, that is already stretched thin because of inflation. Tasha worries that her family is one bad month away from not being able to afford her son’s lunch.

“A tragic event could come up or we might have an additional expense for cars or something like that. I hope that policymakers see the value in feeding our children.”

Austin Public Schools takes applications for the free and reduced lunch program year-round and nutritionists encourage parents to apply to see if you qualify.