Teachers help students pick out food from the counter in the lunch line at Lakeview Elementary School in Lincoln.
Teachers help students get their meals in the lunch line at Lakeview Elementary School in Lincoln. Credit: Lincoln Public Schools

How the end of pandemic-era funding has impacted school lunch for Nebraska students.

Just as families across the country had gotten used to free school meals for all students, the program stopped in September 2022, putting many school districts in a bind.   

For the past two years, under the free-lunch-for-all program enacted by Congress in 2020, all 50 billion public school students in the U.S. received free school lunches. With the expiration of this pandemic-era funding, parents were expected to begin paying for their student’s meals again earlier this school year or apply for assistance programs. With economic inflation and high food costs, paying the bills has been a struggle for many families. 

Most schools will provide student lunches even if their bills are unpaid. This leaves districts shouldering the burden of meal debt, which has skyrocketed since federal funding ended. According to the School Nutrition Association’s 2023 survey of more than 1,200 school districts nationwide, 44.4 percent of respondents listed unpaid debt as a significant challenge for their school meal program. However, the largest three Nebraska school districts, including the Millard, Lincoln and Omaha, have avoided this trend.

Millard Public Schools, the third largest district in Nebraska, serves almost 24,000 students. This district came out of the pandemic with a positive fund in its food service account. Justin Wiley, general manager of food services at MPS, said COVID-related funding and keeping their doors open during that time helped put the district in a better position post-pandemic. 

“Our story goes back a couple of years. When the USDA allowed school districts to serve free meals during the pandemic because Millard Public Schools remained open and didn’t have the partial classes, it really benefited Millard and the food service fund account because the reimbursements that we received were higher than we normally received in a normal school year,“ Wiley said. 

In the typical free/reduced/paid lunch environment of a normal school year, the district does not receive the full revenue for all meals sold because a portion of the bills is not paid. But Wiley said during the pandemic, the federal lunch program reimbursed MPS for the complete revenue of each meal it sold to students. Millard was able to build up a reserve in its food service fund account as a result. 

“The food service fund had been in a negative position for several years prior to COVID. We were taking steps to reduce that debt, but we weren’t able to come completely out of it until the COVID reimbursement,” Wiley said. “During those COVID years, it actually put us ahead to a point where we could strategize how the money is spent from a day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year basis so when it comes to replacing equipment or upgrading things now we have a cash reserve that can absorb that cost and help prevent us from going back into a negative fund balance.” 

Having a negative balance in food service accounts is not uncommon for school districts. However, with lunch debt spiking in school districts across the U.S., keeping balances at their typical levels could be considered somewhat of a win. 

This is the case for Lincoln Public Schools, the second largest district in Nebraska, serving nearly 42,000 students. While meal debt in the district currently stands at about $37,000, this number is on track with what the district expects for this time of year. LPS Director of Nutrition Services Andrew Ashelford said comparing this year to years prior is not quite comparing apples to apples. He credits a new payment system for helping to keep cafeteria debt down. 

“In the 2018-2019 school year, we changed our collection processes to a more automated system. Parents can use an app to pay, and they receive notifications when meal funds are low,” Ashelford said. 

The payment system also includes an auto-pay option that makes scheduled payments into student lunch accounts which also aids in preventing negative balances. Ashelford also explained that eight high-poverty schools in LPS are on the Community Eligible Provisions program that ensures free meals to all students at these schools. 

Similarly, the CEP program has provided meals to all of the nearly 52,000 students in Nebraska’s largest school district, Omaha Public schools, since the district qualified for the program in December 2021. 

“The CEP permits eligible schools to provide meal services to all enrolled students at no cost to families, regardless of economic status,” External Relations Administrator at OPS Bridget Belvins said. “The program removes potential barriers to a nutritious meal for students, ensuring they can focus on learning.”

Since families in this district are not currently responsible for paying for school lunches, OPS will not be burdened with meal service debt until after the 2024-2025 school year when their CEP eligibility expires. At that point, the district may be able to re-apply for the program.

I am a senior journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.