KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Local metro families are coming up short to pay for their student’s meals at school.

The government recently ended the federal pandemic-era program to pay for school meals.

Combine that with families and schools fighting inflation and higher supply costs, and many area districts are in the red.

March is National Nutrition Month.  The School Nutrition Association, a non-profit, says in January, nearly 850 school districts nationwide reported their meal debt.

The number exceeded $19 Million.

Lori Danella, nutritionist for the Lee’s Summit school district, just returned from an SNA conference in Washington D.C., where meal debt was discussed.

“School debt is a huge problem,” Danella said.  “A lot of parents are struggling.”

Danella says families of four must make less than $649 a week to qualify for free meals.

Still, students aren’t turned away, so their accounts are charged.

“We’ve already served those meals, and we’ve paid for those meals,” Danella said. 

“We’ve paid for the labor, so the district has to pay for that.  It can’t come out of budget.  Basically, what that could mean if the district has over $45,000 or $55,000 in negative debt, that could be a teacher salary.”

FOX4 News asked several area school districts for their meal debt data.

Liberty says 49 full-pay students are facing meal debt.

Blue Valley stands at 1550 total, while Shawnee is nearly at 2300.

Gardner and Lee’s Summit attached a dollar figure to their debt.  Gardner estimates between 120 and 140 students in debt for a total of only $700.

But in Lee’s Summit, where Danella works, it’s more than 400 students and almost $49,000 in the red.

Lori Sommerfeld took matters into her own hands.  She started a GoFundMe for her late son’s former school, Rhein Benninghoven Elementary, to help pay off their meal debt.

Sommerfeld says that’s what her son, Jonathan, would have wanted.

“We started a GoFundMe with the goal of a thousand [dollars] and it went to three thousand,” Sommerfeld said.  “We were able to donate $3,000 to the school, which is equivalent to about 1074 meals.”

A new Missouri bill promises to pay for every public school student’s meal, but Danella fears it’ll be squashed for funding reasons.

School districts known as Community Eligible Provision Districts already provide all free meals to students for meeting a certain income threshold.  They don’t have meal debt.

Kansas City Public Schools is a CEP.