TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — School districts are playing catch up trying to make sure families whose children qualify for free or reduced meal benefits at school submit the required applications.

This school year marks the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 that families have been required to apply for free or reduced meals. Pandemic-era waivers, meant to ease the burden on families in financial crisis, allowed all kids to eat free meals at school without an application. Those waivers expired in the summer of 2022.

Some district leaders are saying as the school year is underway, there is still a gap. Missing applications means some kids are missing out on the much-needed benefits.

“Those who have submitted free and reduced price applications, those numbers are down. We are sort of starting in a hole to provide benefits for children,” said Karen McGahey, director of the food service department for Johnson City Schools.

While it is never too late to submit an application for free or reduced meal benefits, an important deadline is looming.

A grace period in place for families who have applied for benefits in the past is about to end. The federal government has allowed children with old benefit applications on file to eat for free up to 30 days after the start of the school year.

But after that, students stand to lose their benefits if a new application is not received by their school. For many districts that deadline is coming up in mid-September.

“If families do not have a current year application, they will drop off the program. We do try to reach out to the families and make sure everyone is notified,” said McGahey.

The nutrition director for Sullivan County Schools reports a good turnout so far with benefit applications.

“We have approved almost 4,000 students, which is a lot. Of those, we have denied only 300 applications. That’s just 300 students whose applications were over the income limits,” said Amber Anderson.

The districts are encouraging anyone who thinks they may qualify to go ahead and apply.

“I do think the need is there. I think a lot of families circumstances changed,” said Anderson.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee says food insecurity is higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“It has leveled off to about 75,000 people that have reported they are food insecure in our region,” said Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest.

To keep children from going hungry, Second Harvest partners with 130 schools in Northeast Tennessee.

“The schools identify children that may have a need for additional food at nights or on the weekends,” said Chafin.

Once those children are identified by guidance counselors, teachers or school administration, Second Harvest can send backpacks or boxes full of food home with them, directly from school.

“It’s so important that we are able to provide food for families in need throughout the northeast Tennessee region,” said Chafin.

Parents who want their child to receive the extra food from their schools, even if they do not qualify for free or reduced lunch, can bring it up with their teacher or school administration to get their child enrolled in the program.

Chafin says Second Harvest also provides food for many schools in Northeast Tennessee to have an on-site food pantry where children can get what they need.

“We encourage the schools to have food on hand at all times,” said Chafin.

Second Harvest is always in need of donations to help not only the thousands of hungry children in the region, but the food insecure families, seniors and young adults who rely on their food bank.

Monetary donations to support Second Harvest can be made online.