OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – It’s almost time to head back to the classroom for school districts across the state and for some, that means the return of stress about paying for school lunches. 

“It’s a huge problem across our state, across the country,” said State Senator Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan. “Families are struggling right now.” 

It’s a problem that’s been on many Oklahoma families and administrators’ plates since the pandemic free-meal program ended in June of last year.

For two years, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program allowed every student in the country to eat for free at their public-school cafeteria. It ended in June of 2022. 

This semester, students must qualify for free lunch. 

“185% of the poverty line is what you have to be under to qualify for reduced price lunch,” said Chris Bernard, the President of Hunger Free Oklahoma. “Families that are over that, are still struggling… Until we have a solution that actually helps support those folks, I think you’re going to continue to see school lunch debt at higher rates than we did pre pandemic.”

Bernard explained that the end of universal free meals has caused unpaid lunch debt to skyrocket. Even today, many who are eligible have forgotten to fill out the application paperwork. 

Last month, the Marlow School District in southwestern Oklahoma told KFOR it was owed thousands of dollars in school lunch money from families that haven’t paid. 

Superintendent Corey Holland said the district had $20,000+ in lunch debt. He said the debt was made up by about 450 kids which is roughly a quarter of their student population.

According to Sen. Garvin, other districts have racked up more than double that amount. 

Last session, she co-authored a bill that would allow an additional 150,000 students to qualify for free lunch by moving the poverty line from 185% to 250%. 

“It would just allow for more kids to qualify or more families to qualify for that program,” said Sen Garvin. “It would provide state funding to fill the gap and for the school districts.”

The measure died in the senate last session, but Garvin is optimistic lawmakers will be hungry for a solution in the future. 

Hunger Free Oklahoma adds that many families don’t realize they do qualify for reduced lunches. The form to apply can be filled out on your school district’s website. It only takes a few minutes to complete.