WINTERVILLE, N.C. — For two and a half years, students have been receiving free meals as part of a COVID-19 relief program. Now, as schools transition out of COVID-19 protocols, families are finding themselves with school lunch debt.


What You Need To Know

After two and a half years of free meals, some students need to pay for school lunches

Pitt County Schools is seeing over $28,000 of school lunch debt

The nutrition director is trying to reach families about the money they owe

Schools across the country are experiencing the same issue


Gretchen Wilson loves walking into a school cafeteria. As the nutrition director, she knows the food is good, and the kids are hungry.

“We're enjoying having kids back here in our dining rooms and able to eat and sit and enjoy their meals,” Wilson said.

After lots of changes due to COVID-19, schools are finally getting back to normal. However, Pitt County Schools now has over $28,000 of school lunch debt.

“I believe it's because our students are enjoying eating with us and gotten used to eating with us in the last two years,” Wilson said. “So they're just coming through a line like they have been and taking their meals and going and not thinking about having to have their money on hand to pay for those meals.”

Wilson says she tries to get the word out in case families don't realize their school may no longer have free meals, but even weekly emails, social media and phone calls don't reach everyone. She says she wants to find a way to help kids get the meals they need.

“We're definitely a part of what makes the school run,” Wilson said. “And that's what I feel proud about — knowing that we're here for the kids.”

Wilson says they currently don't plan to stop feeding any kids, but she hopes families can get the resources they need for their lunch debts or individuals schools might have to absorb the costs.

School lunch debt isn't unique to Pitt County. It's an issue throughout North Carolina and throughout the United States.

Pender County Schools said it has almost $28,000 in school lunch debt while New Hanover County Schools has over $40,000. Anyone who might be eligible for free or reduced meals can reach out to their local school district.

The cafeteria at Creekside Elementary School in Winterville. (Spectrum News 1/Jenna Rae Gaertner)