‘They just start crying’: Food insecurity and student debt soar across Minnesota – MPR News | CarTailz

The worst thing about Angie Richey’s job is calling families and asking them to pay their school lunch debts. She is the director of nutrition services for the Roseville and St. Anthony school districts and says the lunch debt is tens of thousands of dollars after just three months of the school year — higher than at any time in the 12 years she’s worked on school nutrition.

“I get calls saying, ‘I’m not eligible for free and discounted meals, but I can’t afford to pay for meals. It only takes into account my gross income, but doesn’t take into account medical bills, living expenses or rising food prices.’ And I get that, so we just make it our job to feed all the kids, and eventually we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of that negative food balance,” Richey said.

Roseville isn’t the only Minnesota county where families are struggling to pay for student meals. Cheryl Pick is the District Manager for Child Nutrition Services in Foley. She says she’s had calls from grandparents asking to pay school lunch bills because they know parents can’t afford it.

“We continue to provide meals to our students, but there are some families that cannot afford it, and so you see a larger unpaid debt for meals that is a drain on families and school district budgets,” she said.

Pick’s on the board at her local grocery shelf, and she says more families are using the pantries there. But she’s also president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, so she knows counties across the state are seeing similar situations.

Federal funding paid for universal free school meals during the pandemic ended months ago. This works together with inflation, supply chain problems and rising labor costs. California and Maine passed legislation to ensure all students get free school meals last year and earlier this month Colorado voters agreed to a voting measure to do the same.

Before you read on, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trustworthy news and context remain accessible to all.

Two other states have extended the free school feeding program through the end of the school year, but have no legislation beyond 2023. Minnesota has not yet been able to pass similar legislation.

In Austin, school leaders have worked for years to address student hunger and debt for school lunches. They were able to work with local businesses like Hormel to send money directly to students’ lunchtime accounts.

“When the universal free lunch came to an end, there were a lot of people who, for lack of a better word, just found themselves in that demarcation zone, where they were earning just enough as the limit to qualify for a discounted lunch, but still not earning enough to be able to afford the $475 per child per school year for lunch. There are a lot of people who can fit in this boat,” said Andrew Beenken-Adams, director of finance and operations for Austin Public Schools.

The district has also set up food supplies in school buildings so that children can access food directly from the library when they need it.

But not every district has been able to get help with school lunch debts. In Ramsey, after just three months of the year, the debt is nearly $65,000 across the district. Roseville has turned to outside partners for help, such as Every Meal, a backpacking program that puts food in the backpacks of students who need it to fill in gaps over the weekend.

“Demand for weekend meal programs is high because children’s nutritional needs are not being met on the weekends without perhaps indebtedness to well-intentioned parents and guardians and all of our communities that support them and our government. But right now the demand is just not being met,” said Lindsey Torkilsen, program director of Every Meal.

Her organization planned for a 17 percent increase in demand this year. Instead, demand rose by 34 percent.

“It’s a snowy day in Minnesota and the family may have to choose between heating their home this weekend, gas to get to work over the weekend with utilities that cost more, and food this weekend,” she said. “And I think when I see the demand in our weekend grocery program, it means more people are signing up for our options so they don’t have to make the difficult decision of paying the heating bill instead of feeding their kids.”

But Every Meal and other community-funded programs say they’re struggling to raise enough money to keep feeding those who need it. Donations are declining as more and more people are short of cash. And many donors have linked the Feeding Our Future scam program to legitimate organizations that actually feed families.

For Every Meal, an inability to raise enough funds has meant the meal bags they normally give out at community locations to get families through winter break school holidays will not be available this year.

“Traditionally, we run a winter mealtime program at community sites, and we’ve had to cancel that program altogether,” Torkilsen said.

Grocery shelves are struggling to keep up with demand

Grocery shelves have similar problems. Matthew Ayres is the director of Joyce Uptown Foodshelf. He says the number of new people who need to use his organization’s services has increased two-and-a-half times since the pandemic began.

“We are letting more and more people walk through the door who have never had access to services. We have people who come through and start crying right away because they can’t believe they’re in this position and they’re so grateful to just come in and not be asked any questions,” Ayres said.

Ayres says he and his staff love being able to help families. But giving has declined since the peak of the pandemic, when people donated their stimulus checks. The waiting list to shop at Joyce is secured for three weeks.

“People get crushed. People are under a lot of pressure, he says, and food is the easiest thing to cut out of your advertising budget,” he said. “There is no grocery shelf for gas or car repairs or medical supplies. The only way to cut things out of your budget and make things work for your family is to cut groceries. And that’s what people choose.”

Leave a Comment