'They just start crying': Student food insecurity and debt rising across Minnesota

Lunch line
Families across Minnesota are having a hard time paying for students' meals.
Julie Siple | MPR News 2013

The worst part of Angie Richey’s job is having to call families and ask them to pay their school lunch debt. She is the nutrition services supervisor for the Roseville and St Anthony school districts and, just three months into the school year, she says lunch debt is in the tens of thousands of dollars — higher than she’s ever seen it in the 12 years she’s worked in school nutrition. 

“I’m getting calls that say, ‘I don’t qualify for free and reduced meals, but I can’t afford to pay for meals. It’s only taking into account my gross income, but it doesn’t take into account medical bills or the cost of living or the increasing cost of groceries.’ And I get that, so we just make it our job to feed all kids, and we will eventually have to deal with the consequences of those negative meal balances,” Richey said.  

Roseville is not the only Minnesota district where families are having a hard time paying for students’ meals. Cheryl Pick is the district child nutrition services director in Foley. She says she’s gotten calls from grandparents asking to pay school lunch bills because they know parents can’t afford it.   

“We continue to feed our students, however, there are some families that can’t afford to pay that and so you’re seeing a larger unpaid meal debt which is a burden on families and school district budgets,” she said. 

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

The federal funding that paid for universal free school meals during the pandemic ended months ago. That combined with inflation, supply chain issues and rising labor costs are having an effect. California and Maine passed bills last year to ensure all students had free school meals, and earlier this month Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to do the same.

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Two other states have extended free school lunch programming through the end of the academic year, but don’t have legislation in place beyond 2023. Minnesota so far has been unable to pass similar legislation. 

In Austin, school leaders have been working for years to address student hunger and school lunch debt. They’ve been able to partner with local companies like Hormel to get money directly into student lunch accounts. 

“As universal free lunch came to an end, there’s a lot of people that were just in this demarcation zone for lack of a better word, where they made just enough than the limit for qualifying for reduced lunch, but yet they didn’t make enough to afford the $475 per kid per school year to pay for lunches. There’s a lot of people to fit into that boat,” said Andrew Beenken-Adams, Austin Public Schools’ director of finance and operations. 

The district has also set up food pantries in school buildings so that kids can access food straight from the library if they need it. 

But not every district has been able to get help with school lunch debt. In Ramsey, just three months into the year, the debt is close to $65,000 district-wide. Roseville has sought help from outside partners, like Every Meal, a backpack program that puts food into the backpacks of students who need it to fill gaps on weekends. 

“The demand we’re seeing across weekend meal programs is high because children’s food needs are not being met on the weekends by no fault of maybe well-intentioned parents and guardians and the whole of our communities that support them and our government. But right now the demand is simply not being met,” said Lindsey Torkilsen, director of programs for Every Meal. 

Her organization planned for a 17 percent increase in demand this year. Instead, they’ve seen demand go up by 34 percent. 

“It’s a snowy day in Minnesota and the family this weekend might need to choose between heat in their home, gas to get to work on the weekend with spinouts that cost more and food,” she said. “And I think by seeing the demand in our weekend food program, this means that more people are signing up for our options so that they don’t have to make the tough choice of paying the heating bill as opposed to feeding their children.” 

But Every Meal and other community-funded programs say they’re having trouble raising enough money to continue providing food to those that need it. Donations are down as more people are strapped for cash. And many donors have associated the Feeding Our Future fraud scheme with legitimate organizations that are actually feeding families. 

For Every Meal, the inability to raise enough funds has meant the food bags they usually distribute at community sites to get families through the winter holiday school breaks won’t be available this year. 

“Traditionally we run a winter meal program at community sites and we’ve had to cancel that programming all together,” said Torkilsen.

Food shelves struggle to keep up with demand

Food Shelves are experiencing similar issues. Matthew Ayres is the director of Joyce Uptown Foodshelf. He says the number of new people needing to use his organization’s services has increased by two and a half fold since the start of the pandemic. 

“We’re having more and more people walk through the door that has never had to access services. We have people that come through and they just start crying immediately both because they can’t believe that they’re in this position and they are so grateful to just come in and not have questions asked,” said Ayres. 

Ayres says he and his staff love being able to help families. But giving has fallen off since the height of the pandemic when people were donating their stimulus checks. The waitlist to shop at Joyce is backed up for three weeks. 

“People are getting squeezed. People are under a lot of pressure, he says, and food is the easiest thing to cut out of your line item budget,” he said. “There’s not a food shelf for gasoline or car repairs or medical care. The only way you can cut things out of your budget and make things work for your family is to cut out food. And that’s what people are choosing to do.”