SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) — As the Sioux City School District (SCCSD) continues its school year unpaid lunch debt continues to rise, putting families and the school district in a difficult position.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reimbursed schools providing free meals for students. However, before the start of the 2022 school year, the federal waiver expired.

“Pre 2018 the district was averaging about 3,000 to 4,000 district wide of families with a negative balance, and by the end of that year 2019 the negative debt over the next year or so had grown to about $20,000 to $30,000 in the hole district wide,” said Rich Luze, Sioux City Schools Food Service Director.

School meals cost more than $3 for each student and with thousands of children throughout the school district, that money adds up.

“The district did start out with a zero negative balance on the first day of school, August 23, and by mid-September the negative balance had grown to about $12,000 in the negative already. And by the end of October, it was into the $20,000 and by the end of November we’re into $25/26,000 in the negative in the hole,” said Luze.

Last week, SCCSD received a $30,000 grant from the Missouri River Historical Development (MRHD) to help with unpaid school meals. Luze said while the district is thankful for the grant, it’s a temporary solution.

“This is an ongoing problem that we don’t see ending in the very near future. The daily charge is approximately $800 to $900, so within a couple 3 to 4 days the district will be back in the negative,” said Luze.

Luze said there are roughly 900 out of 1,500 students with unpaid lunch accounts across the district. One solution to help Sioux City families and the school district is for parental figures to apply for the meal assistance program.

“What we need to have parents do is sign up for free and reduced lunches and for the program. if they have qualified in the past, chances are they still may continue to qualify for it. If guardians and parents have had changes to their employment status, they absolutely should talk to their school and to complete the application,” said Karen Harrison, director of Sioux City Public Schools Foundation.

Harrison said the school district has resources available to help folks that don’t speak English and have people that can help fill out the application.

“Every single school has the application available, including our downtown district office. but you can simply go into your school and any of the schools and there is somebody waiting within that school building that can help that family fill out that application. It’s very quick and easy,” said Harrison. 

Sioux City parents that would like to apply for the free and reduced meal program can click here.