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Unpaid lunches dig deep financial hole for Buncombe County Schools, leaders say

<i>WLOS</i><br/>Buncombe County Schools is experiencing a financial shortfall caused by an excess of unpaid lunches in their student meal program.
WLOS
WLOS
Buncombe County Schools is experiencing a financial shortfall caused by an excess of unpaid lunches in their student meal program.

By Charles Perez

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    BUNCOMBE COUNTY, North Carolina (WLOS) — Buncombe County Schools is experiencing a financial shortfall caused by an excess of unpaid lunches in their student meal program.

School leaders say the district is about $112,000 in the hole due to unpaid lunches.

The shortfall comes after a pandemic-era program came to an end in August. School lunches were free for all public school students for the first two-and-a-half years of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the program ended at the start of the 2022-23 school year, students and parents had to start paying for school lunches or apply for free or reduced lunches.

In past years, most students that could demonstrate financial hardship and went through the application process received the benefit. However, a larger than normal number of students have not applied for free or reduced lunch this year, yet continue to receive free lunch.

Lisa Payne, the nutrition director for Buncombe County Schools, said the situation puts county schools in a difficult financial position.

“We’re at $112,000 in unpaid lunch charges, and that’s a huge burden to the school district,” Payne said. “That would have to come out of local school funds.”

Before the pandemic, the school system would budget about $25,000 annually to pay for student lunches not covered under the free and reduced lunch program. This year, the district has surpassed that amount four times over in the first three months of the school year.

At this rate, the school system could accumulate over $300,000 in debt by the end of the school year.

Buncombe County Schools is now reaching out to the community in hopes that residents will come to their aid. As school leaders communicate with students and parents about applying for the free and reduced lunch program, they hope to make up much of the shortfall before pulling funds from other school programs.

According to Payne, the school system will not let kids go hungry and is committed to delivering lunch to every student who needs one.

“It’s still a great value for the amount of food these children are receiving,” she said.

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