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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kids will continue receiving free school lunches through the end of next school year. It’s thanks to U.S. Department of Agriculture support, which started during the pandemic to make sure students don’t go hungry.   

Now there are calls to make free meals for kids permanent.  

To give you a glimpse into how many kids are hungry in our community, 35% of kids in Shawnee Mission Schools are already on free or reduced lunch. And in six of the metro’s largest districts, there was a combined $394,000 in lunch debt in the past two years. 

Giving free meals to all those kids could eliminate a huge weight for families, and it’s already proven to make a big difference in how well they do in class. 

Grocery sacks filled with protein, canned goods and bread are the newest way nonprofit Feed Northland Kids is reaching the hungry.

“Hunger is a hidden issue,” said Chris Evans, Feed Northland Kids executive director. “For a lot of people, it’s a very shameful saturation they’re in, particularly when you get with middle and high school adolescents. They don’t want to stand out for any reason, and hunger is no different.”

By the time school ends this year, Feed Northland Kids will have distributed 25,000 community meal kits. That’s on top of weekend backpacks filled with food and pantries supplying food inside several schools. 

“Something as simple as food shouldn’t be an issue for anybody here in the United States, particularly for children who can’t do anything to combat that on their own,” Evans said. 

She’s thankful thousands of students haven’t had to worry about paying for school lunches since the pandemic started. 

And now, Congress is considering a bill called the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021. It calls for extending not just free lunches, but also free breakfast, snacks and even dinner to every American child. 

“Even before the pandemic, 1 out of 3 schools were offering free breakfast and lunch to all students, and we know from evaluations of them that it improved academic achievement, kids attended school more often and less likely to be absent or tardy. You had fewer behavioral referrals, and so we know kids actually need good nutrition in order to learn and behave in school,” said Crystal FitzSimons with the Food Research & Action Center.

The Food Research & Action Center is now hopeful lawmakers will see the value of extending that program to every kid permanently. 

“We think that investment would have a huge payoff in making sure kids get what they need during the school day,” FitzSimons said. 

The current free and reduced lunch program subsidized by the federal government costs just under $20 million a year. While the final numbers are still coming together, it’s estimated it could cost as little as $5 million more to provide free lunches to all students. 

Here’s a breakdown of local district participation in the free and reduced lunch program and amount of lunch debt in the past two years: 

Shawnee Mission Schools 

  • 2018-19 — 35% free/reduced; $29,075.03 negative balances at end of year 
  • 2019-20 — 34.7% free/reduced; $39,969.03 negative balances at end of year 

North Kansas City School District 

  • 2018-19 — 45.24% free/reduced; $8,969.72 negative balances at end of year
  • 2019-20 — 44.09% free/reduced; $15,757.31 negative balances at end of year

Note: This number is higher than the previous year since the year was interrupted by COVID-19. Efforts concentrated at the end of the year to resolve charges didn’t happen.

Lee’s Summit R7 Schools 

  • 2018-2019 — 20% free/reduced; $21,084.02 negative balances at end of year
  • 2019-2020 — 21% free/reduced; $19,609.70 negative balances at end of year

Note: Donations were received in December 2019 of just more than $20,000 to cover negative balances, so that amount could’ve been much higher this year. 

“While we are so pleased that the USDA has extended meal waivers that allow us to offer free meals for our families, it is still so important for families to keep filling out free and reduced lunch forms so we can ensure continuity of service when these waivers go away and so we have an accurate count of how many families in our district qualify. We encourage our families to do so regularly,” said Katy Bergen, Lee’s Summit Schools spokesperson. 

Liberty Public Schools 

  • 2018-2019 — 19.74% free/reduced; $76,455 negative balances at end of year
  • 2019-2020 — 20.22% free/reduced; $77,087 negative balances at end of year

Olathe Public Schools 

  • 2018-2019 — 7,667 students free/reduced; $45,658.50 negative balances at end of year
  • 2019-2020 — 7,607 students free/reduced; $39,545.06 negative balances at end of year

Note: $23,187.76 of that total amount was paid by the Olathe Public Schools Foundation thanks to the generosity of community supporters and Atmos Energy. The Olathe Public Schools Foundation and private donors often contribute to Food Services’ “Families-in-Need Fund” to assist with student meal account debt. 

Blue Valley Schools 

  • 2018-2019 — 5% free, 2.73% reduced; $6,958.20 negative balances at end of year
  • 2019-2020 — 4.69% free, 2.66 reduced; $5,469.10 negative balances at end of year