BISMARCK, ND (KXNET) — Out of the 36,130 people facing hunger in North Dakota, 14,490 are children, according to Feeding America.

Pandemic meal waivers for schools ended right before the beginning of the 2022 to 2023 school year.

So now, income requirements must be met before students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“No matter what, we are going to make sure that they get a breakfast and a lunch. And we encourage families to apply for free and reduced meals but we’re always gonna make sure they eat. And so, sometimes that means families can’t pay for those meals, and so, then they start accruing debt,” said Michelle Wagner, director of Child Nutrition for Bismarck Public Schools.

1 in 12 children in our state face food insecurity.

And Wagner says it’s important for students to have access to meals, because children should only have to focus on learning, not whether they’ll be able to eat.

“You can’t learn. Your brain can’t function if it’s not fed properly. So, we’re here to fuel their bodies and their minds. Just like if you’re an adult at work and you don’t eat all day, you’re not going to feel very well, you’re not going to be able to perform very well. So, it’s no different for students. We want to make sure they have everything they need to be academically successful,” said Wagner.

Bismarck Public Schools’ lunch debt program accrued thousands of dollars for the first half of the current school year.

But thanks to the help of the Bismarck Public Schools Foundation and donors, that debt was paid off.

“We just recently were able to help with about $18,000 in debt, which is amazing and that’s all due to the donors here locally in our community that have stepped up to the plate, and they’re like you know what, we see that there’s other people in our community that are hurting. And we want to make sure that they have the ability to just focus on what they need to focus on in school and just be able to do what they need to do,” said Stacey Lang, the development director for the Bismarck Public Schools Foundation.

The school lunch debt program allows students to receive the same meals as those who pay full price, free, or reduced, so no student is lunch shamed.

Many school districts in our state offer a lunch debt program so students are able to eat meals at school whether they can pay the bill or not.

You can help cover the cost by reaching out to your local school.