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N.Y. school nutrition operators struggling with meal debt in wake of universal free meals, survey finds

Around half of respondents reported that unpaid meal debt is a challenge this school year, with many saying it's accumulating faster than in the past.
Cafeteria trays on a table
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School foodservice directors in New York say they’re struggling with meal debt now that they no longer offer universal free meals, according to a new survey conducted by Hunger Solutions New York and No Kid Hungry New York.

The survey included just under 200 school nutrition directors located throughout the state. Around half of respondents said that unpaid meal debt is a challenge they’re currently facing, and of those, 73% also reported that their debt is accumulating at a higher rate compared to previous school years.

Of the respondents who said that meal debt is a current challenge, more than half (57%) said that debt comes from families unable to pay for school meals, 35% said it comes from families that do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and 22% said it stems from families who qualify but will not submit a free or reduced-price meal application. The survey authors suggest that stigma or fear may play a role in families not filling out the forms.

During the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture issued a series of waivers that allowed school nutrition programs to serve free meals to all public school students. The waivers expired in June, requiring families at many districts to begin paying for meals again this school year.

Some states have worked to include funding to continue offering universal free meals for the current school year. Others, such as Colorado, have made free school meals a permanent addition to the school day.

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