(NEW YORK) -- Back to school means back-to-school lunches, but this year they're costing more with food prices increasing nationwide.
Pandemic relief funds that ensured free meals for all kids ran out in June and school nutritionists are blaming higher costs on inflation, supply chain problems and the lasting effects of the pandemic.
The national school lunch program serves 29.7 million children daily and, of those lunches, 20.2 million are free as of 2021, according to the Education Data Initiative”
"We know that families are struggling right now," said Willow Kriegel, director of nutrition services for the West Des Moines Community Schools in Iowa. "Gas prices are high and food costs. We know that things are more expensive."
Kriegel said that her school district had to raise prices by 25 cents per meal. While raising the costs helps somewhat, Kriegel said it's still not enough to break even.
In Kriegel's district alone, she said cafeterias are $109,000 in school meal debt.
To help counteract the growing debt, Kriegel said she applied for nine out of her 13 schools to get free and reduced lunches. Those requests were granted, but Kriegel said she knows many other schools aren't as lucky.
Overall, the national public school lunch debt sits at $262 million a year. Still, a million-and-half students pay full price for lunches they can't afford, according to the Education Data Initiative.
"I was really waiting for, you know, our legislators to come through and extend the free meals for all students, at least for one more year, while we're all struggling." said Kriegel who was president of the Iowa School Nutrition Association last year.
Congress increased federal reimbursements for lunches this school year with the Keep Kids Fed Act, which passed in June and provided 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast.
But that extra funding is not enough to bring schools back to the Summer Food Service Program reimbursement rates as during the pandemic, said Diane Pratt-Heavner with the School Nutrition Association.
Alternative lunches, shaming over meal debt can have negative impacts on students' psyches, experts say
"Even even with additional assistance from Congress, which we're grateful for, schools will still see a slight drop in federal reimbursements," said Pratt-Heavner.
Kriegel, in Iowa, said her school is facing staffing shortages and she and other managers are having to cook food themselves. Kriegel said her biggest concern is that she won't be able to offer students the options and nutritious food that goes beyond state and national requirements.
"I treat them all like they're my own little 5-year-old," said Kriegel.
Kriegel's daughter is starting school this fall and Kriegel says her daughter Olivia knows she's not going to be a lunch-box kid.
But feeding kids can be a challenge when shipments are delayed.
"You know, when we make a menu change, it's not as easy as just going to the store and buying a different chicken product," said Kriegel.
"We spend hours a day extra hunting for products and getting outages and shortages and trying to adjust our menus and then that changes. It's like a ripple effect."
"School meal program budgets have very limited amount of funds to use for preparing and serving school meals," said Pratt-Heavner.
She said taking on school lunch debt can limit nutritionists' options and keep them from offering more choices to picky kids.
"We're really trying to get out the word to families. Even if you don't think you are eligible, go ahead and apply for free or reduced price meals," said Pratt-Heavner.
Delaware has the highest average school lunch debt per student at $188.49. It also has one of the highest number of schools who belong to Community Lunch Programs, which makes meals free for entire schools.
Aimee Beam with the state's School Nutrition Programs said Delaware is looking at various ways to reduce that debt. She said that school districts are using money from their school nutrition account to waive the cost of their reduced price breakfast and breakfast.
"The students that would normally have to pay up to 30 cents for breakfast won't have to pay anything, so that can eliminate the potential for the debt in that area," said Beam.
"Our biggest concern is the supply chain issues; to get the product that we need to serve the compliant meals," said Beam.
Beam said the most important thing is to remind parents to fill out their meal eligibility form so that students won't have to go into debt, and schools can afford to feed the children.
"No child should have to worry about whether mom and dad completed an application or put money on their lunch account," said Pratt-Heavner.