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School districts struggling with growing school lunch debt

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Posted at 8:14 PM, Feb 23, 2023

PARMA, Ohio — With inflation affecting every aspect of life across the board, Northeast Ohio schools are seeing a rise in parents unable to pay for school lunches which is increasing the school’s debt.

During the school day, one of the most important parts is lunch.

“Here specifically at Parma. We are very big on fresh local produce with high nutritional value,” said Emily Gladish, a nutrition services supervisor at Parma City Schools.

“Nutrition is part of education. You can't learn without a proper nutrition diet,” said Bill Bailey, a nutrition and food service supervisor at Cuyahoga Falls schools.

In 2021 and 2022, the USDA allowed schools including Cuyahoga falls and Parma city schools to serve free lunch to students, but that's not the case this year.

“When we came into this year, it was hard to get families to not only update free and reduced applications but even fill out new ones,” said Bailey.

With a struggle of getting families to renew, they saw decreases in applications all together, Gladish said.

With nutrition such an important aspect of the day, schools must keep feeding students even if they can't pay for it, which is growing their debt.

For Cuyahoga Falls, the school district is looking at $15,000 debt compared to the $1,000 in 2019. At Parma City schools, the debt is now $11,000 which is double from the past.

The other problem is some families still think that we have that benefit in place and they're not adding money on their onto their account,” said Bailey.

The additional confusion stems from programs ending due to a lull in the pandemic.

“Partially the confusion coming off of the pandemic and the transition from free meals to paid meals and then it didn't addition to that inflation right now,” said Gladish.

Even with the rise in debt, neither district plans to stop feeding students with outstanding balances.

“At this point, we're not, but that's not out of the question and we're looking into maybe changing some policies,” said Bailey.

Both districts are contacting parents and working to get more applications for free or reduced lunch with the hopes these issues will be solved.

“It's sad, it's something that in the nutrition field is going on in a lot of different places and I feel that universal free meals for all students would really put take a lot of the stress off of families,” said Gladish.

Parma City Schools said they have also received donations that have helped them with the debt.

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