WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Meal debt for Kansas schools spiked nearly six times in the past year, according to a new study. Researchers tracked the rise in unpaid meals back to the end of a pandemic-related program, which temporarily kept all students fed for free.

In the year since universal free school meals ended, debt went from $4 million to $23 million, according to Kansas Appleseed.

This week, Hays USD 489 started offering free breakfast for all students

The end of pandemic era meal programs marked the start of new troubles for Hays Public Schools.

“We realized that kids who are hungry, they sometimes can’t focus on their learning, and they sometimes struggle with behavior,” said USD 489 Superintendent Ron Wilson.

“There’s all sorts of research out there that quality learning can’t really happen on an empty stomach,” said Jessica Younker, USD 489 food service coordinator. “When kids are more focused on their tummy growling when they’re supposed to be learning.”

For now, Hays district leaders are using funds left over from the federal free meal program to provide free breakfast for all students.

In the future, if enough students participate, schools can access more meal funding.

“If more of the kids who qualify for free come and eat breakfast, then that will help cover the extra cost of those who don’t normally qualify for free,” Younker said.

Offering everyone the free breakfast option helps to eliminate the stigma that can come with it.

“Sometimes kids who can get free breakfast, they are the only ones who are eating breakfast,” Wilson said. “So they get singled out.”

Free meals ease the financial burden for families already facing an economically challenging time, according to Kansas Appleseed.

“Your priority is for your family to be housed and fed, and your hope is that when they go to school, that is taken care of,” said Martha Terhaar, Kansas Appleseed’s thriving advocate.

The superintendent says the district is providing free breakfast through the end of the year. They will then decide whether it makes financial sense to keep the program going.