SIOUX CIY – A month into the new school year, the Sioux City public school district’s school lunch balance is already awash in red ink.
After two years of free school lunches for every family due to the COVID-19 pandemic, districts have returned to the policy of requiring students to either qualify for free or reduced meals or pay the regular cost. Despite efforts made by the district to alert families of the change and encouraging them to apply, some were still “caught off guard,” Rich Luze, the Sioux City district’s food service supervisor, said Monday.
As of Sept. 22, the district has a total negative meal balance of $12,940. This equates to 726 students with negative balances just 21 days into the school year.
The school year started with zero negative lunch balances. In March 2020, the US Department of Agriculture announced it would reimburse public schools for free breakfast and lunches for all students, regardless of income. Two years later, the program ended.
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In 2020 the Sioux City Education Foundation paid $32,000 in negative balances, freeing families from having to pay for those meals.
Prior to 2016, the district would average about $3,000 in negative balances, but in 2018 new regulations allowed more negative balances to build nationwide.
“Rapidly went from around $3,000 on average from year to year to $20,000 and by the end of the 2018 school year was close to $30,000,” Luze said.
In the Sioux City district, an elementary student’s account can go as far negative at $15.30, a middle school account can go as far negative at $16.80, and a high school account can go as far negative at $17.25. The district is required to feed students with unpaid balances. But once an account goes into the red, those students are only allowed to choose a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, fruit or vegetable, and milk.
Each day, the district serves 11,500 meals a day, with a total student enrollment of nearly 16,000.
For the 2022-23 school year, the full price is $2.05 for breakfast and $3.05 for lunch at the elementary schools, $2.20 for breakfast and $3.40 for lunch at the middle schools and $2.25 for breakfast and $3.50 for lunch at the high.
For a family with two high school students, for example, breakfast and lunch every school day in September would cost $218.50.
“It’s still cheaper than what you can do going to the grocery store,” Luze said.
Families who earn less than 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals and those between 130 and 185 percent qualify for reduced-price meals.
A family of four that has a household income of less than $51,338 annual would qualify for reduced meals and if the household income for the same family is less than $36,075 they would qualify for free meals.
Before the pandemic, almost 70 percent of students in the Sioux City public school district qualified for free and reduced meals.
Luze said currently there are 6,800 students who applied and were accepted in the free and reduce meal program, around 43 percent of the district. Out of the total district enrollment, 45.6 percent of the district was identified as qualifying by the state of Iowa and were automatically enrolled.
Prior to this school year starting, Luze said he worried the higher costs for groceries, gas and other items families would face would lead to some balances going even further into the red. He said other school meal directors in Iowa were also worried.
“Their fear is that they’ll triple, if not quadruple, their negative balances before December,” he told the Journal in July. “If that’s the case, we would be pushing $90,000 to $100,000 into the hole.”