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Without universal free school meals, parents and advocates worry about school meal debt

According to the Education Data Initiative, in 2021 about 40,000 South Carolina students had meal debt, averaging $168.42 per student.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Tuesday, Richland County School District Two addressed an email mistakenly sent to parents Monday about a pre-pandemic policy that denied meals to high school students with more than $10 in meal debt. 

“It's an embarrassment, to be honest, that it went out that way," Richland Two Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis said.

Davis explained the email contained outdated information that does not reflect the district's current policies regarding meal debt. 

"No student in the district has had food taken away from them or thrown in the trash can. That’s just not a practice we have in our school district," said Dr. Davis. 

Precious Canzater is one of the Richland Two parents who received the email. "I just was in disbelief to know that we would throw perfectly good food away just because someone had a negative balance," Canzater said.

Canzater's children once qualified for free and reduced meals in Richland Two. She said she's happy to know the district has done away with the old policy. 

The mom of two is now working to help pay off pre-pandemic meal debt for students at Blythewood High School. 

RELATED: Changes to free/reduced lunch program parents need to know

"I'm hoping that by me stepping up will encourage the community, our local businesses, and then our state representatives to do something," Canzater said. "It's time to take action, and it's time to care for our children because they are the future."

For the last two years, any public school student in the U.S. could eat lunch for free. This year, that is over. Now, school nutrition advocates are worried the end of the free meals is likely to mean the return of student meal debt. 

"If a child is incurring meal debt, chances are that they would qualify for those free and reduced prices but they are going to need to enroll," said Wholespire Executive Director Meg Stanley. 

63% of students qualified for free or reduced lunches in the 2019-2020 school year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Stanley said families who qualify for free meals may not know they have to fill out the application again. Other students might incur debt before realizing their families do not meet the low income qualifications.

"We want our students to be able to have proper nutrition so they can be academically successful and not carry a burden that is really not theirs to carry," said Stanley. 

RELATED: California to begin offering free meals in all public schools this year

Earlier this year Gov. Henry McMaster signed a law banning the use of collection agencies for school meal debts. 

According to the Education Data Initiative, in 2021 about 40,000 South Carolina students had meal debt, averaging $168.42 per student.

"We are carrying a debt, roughly $100,000, from pre-COVID that we are unable to collect other than working with our parents to pay off that debt, which we plan to do," said Davis. 

Davis explained the district is offering families extended grace periods and increasing communication about applying for free/reduced meals and how to put money on their child's account. 

"We work with parents well into the school year, allowing students to receive meals and giving them ample grace period to complete the form," said Davis. 

At least 500 schools in South Carolina will continue providing free meals for all students through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). 

For a school to qualify for the CEP, at least 40% of the individual school’s enrolled population must already participate in another means-tested program or are part of a protected group, such as students experiencing homelessness, in foster care, or migrant students. 

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