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Schools in Arkansas face issues due to high student meal debt

School districts across Arkansas have been facing issues because of an increase in overdue meal balances at schools.

BAUXITE, Ark. — School districts across Arkansas have been seeing a familiar problem, that had not been an issue since before the pandemic— overdue meal balances at schools are high.

"This is issue number one, making sure our students have the proper nutrition and proper fuel," Bauxite Public Schools Superintendent Matt Donaghy said. "That's a really big issue for school districts, we have to make sure our kids are fed and fed well."

That used to be much simpler during the pandemic, as students ate for free no matter their families' income status. 

This is something Donaghy said is missing right now, and it's causing more issues than you'd think.

"It's frustrating that we're not able to provide the high-quality food and the free meals like we have in the past," Donaghy said.

During the pandemic, while the free meals were happening, Bauxite received about $3,000 a day from the USDA to cover those costs. Now that the program is gone, they've been getting about half of that.

Overdue balances in Bauxite are between $3,000 and $4,000 right now.

"It's very hard to educate a student if they're hungry," Donaghy said.

It's an even bigger problem in bigger districts. 

The Bryant School District said their student meal debt totals nearly $60,000, and the Pulaski County Special School District is close to $200,000.

Little Rock has been seeing this as well.

"You know, we have about $33,700 in school debt," Stephanie Walker Hynes, Director of Child Nutrition for LRSD, said.

Walker Hynes put it bluntly— removing the program brought them more issues, and inflation hasn't helped.

"Everything has gone up, it's been an incredible increase," she said. "More than anything I've seen in my entire career."

In Bryant, costs have been continually rising. For example, ground beef has doubled in price, from roughly $150 per unit in the 2019-2020 school year, to $324 per unit this year.

While the old program has left districts with a familiar problem to work with, educators said they hope to see it come back, at least in some form.

"We'd take it back in a heartbeat, it would be a very easy decision for us," Donaghy said.

"Kids attend school free, they ride the bus free, they get their books free," Walker Hynes said. "Why are we not giving these babies food free? It just makes sense."

Another issue districts said they've been seeing is parents not signing up for free and reduced meals. 

They added that it's due to a number of reasons— and whether you think you'll qualify or not, they encourage you to apply.

For more information on your school district's free and reduced meal plan, please visit the links below:

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