Simplified: The Sioux Falls School District will no longer be serving food to kids who have a negative balance of $75 or more on their lunch account. It's a tough decision, officials said, but the alternative could be up to half a million dollars in debt by the end of the year.

Why it matters

  • More than 1,800 students in Sioux Falls have negative school lunch balances right now. It's likely many of them qualify for free or reduced lunches, Gay Anderson, coordinator for child nutrition said, but there are also close to 600 kids who applied this year who were denied assistance because their families make too much money.
  • The school district's lunch debt is growing by about $3,000 per day, Anderson said. That could amount to between $400,000 and $500,000 in debt by the end of the year, which led to the decision to "unpause" the district's lunch policy.
  • The existing debt will be wiped clean by the district's Angel Fund on Friday, but moving forward, students who have a negative balance of $20 will get a snack and milk instead of a hot lunch. Kids whose accounts dip below $75 in the red won't be offered a snack or a hot lunch.
"Right now, it's not sustainable where we're at," Anderson said. "Tough decisions had to be made."

How did we get here?

Lunch debt is nothing new to the Sioux Falls School District, but there are a few factors making it particularly tricky this year.

  • Part of the challenge is that parents got used to not having to pay for school lunches for two full years during the pandemic thanks to federal funding that has since ended.
  • On top of that, there are also likely hundreds – if not thousands – of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunches but cannot receive them if their parents don't apply. The district is working to communicate with parents through various channels to encourage them to fill out the forms.

Why deny kids lunches, though?

The challenge for the school district is that any unpaid lunch debt at the end of the year has to then come from the general fund – which means less money for teachers, supplies, books, etc., Anderson said.

"This is really hard on my team," Anderson said. "They're the ones that are going to have to deal with sharing that information with students."

How can I help?

If you have a kid in school and are struggling to pay for lunches, make sure to apply for assistance.

  • Families who fall below 185% of the poverty line – an annual income of $55,500 for a family of four – would qualify.
  • The district's angel fund also offers discounted lunches to families whose incomes are up to 230% of the poverty level – about $69,000 annually for a family of four.

If you want to help purchase lunches for kids, you can donate to the district's angel fund by writing a check to the Sioux Falls School District Child Nutrition Department and writing "angel fund" in the memo line. Call 605-367-7635 for more info.