GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — School districts in North Carolina have more than $3.1 million in school lunch debt.

What You Need To Know

  • According to the North Carolina Department of Instruction, school districts in our state have accrued $3.1 million in school lunch debt
  • During the pandemic school lunch was free for every student, thanks to a federally subsidized program, but it expired over the summer
  • Families now have to pay for their students' lunch or apply for free or reduced lunch
  • Pastor Dickie Spargo at City Church in Gastonia heard about growing issue, and the congregation raised $23,000 to pay off the debt for Gaston County Schools 

During the pandemic school lunch was free for every student because of a federally subsidized program, but that program expired over the summer, and now families have to pay for their students' lunch or apply for free or reduced lunch.

School lunch debt is a growing problem for school districts in North Carolina. In Gaston County, students owe $13,000. 

Dickie Spargo is the lead pastor at Gastonia's City Church. A few years ago the church started Hope Closet, a clothing giveaway located behind Planet Fitness. 

“This is for kids, families who may be displaced, also for kids in our school," Spargo said. 

Spargo has a big soft spot for children. A few weeks ago he ran across an article about the growing number of kids who can't afford school lunch. 

“We decided that we were going to share it with our church and then just take up an offering and see what would happen," Spargo said. 

In less than two weeks, the congregation raised $23,000. 

According to the school nutrition director for Gaston County Schools, Angela Calamia, students currently have $13,000 in lunch debt. 

“This is certainly an issue that we need help from the community," Calamia said.

Calamia said now the schools are doing their best to reach parents to apply for free or reduced lunch. 

“Really you should apply, because you don’t know until you fill out the application. We will process your application right away. If you do it in the morning, by lunch your child could have free lunch," Calamia said. 

Calamia says to keep the debt from increasing and the burden falling on the students' financial accounts, they limit the number of lunches charged to the students. Once the limit is reached, students are given an alternate lunch which is charged to the disctrict. 

“We’ll reach out to families by phone if we can’t reach them via email and help you to fill out the application and guide you. We have worked really hard in keeping the debt low and keeping our children fed every day," Calamia said. 

According to the North Carolina Department of Instruction, Union County leads the state in lunch debt with more than $327,000, Durham Public Schools has $261,000 and Charlotte-Mecklenburg $224,000. 

The $23,000 donation from City Church will eliminate student lunch debt for the year, and the rest will help pay off debt for next school year. 

“The students of Gaston County Schools are really going to benefit from this," Calamia said. 

Spargo isn't stopping here. He plans on reaching out to state legislatures to figure out a solution to fighting this issue. 

“There is no reason why a child in North Carolina should go without a hot meal. How can you learn on an empty stomach?" Spargo asked.