KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — Leaders of two local school districts said they’re eating thousands of dollars in school lunch fees after the end of a pandemic-era federal voucher.

Federal lawmakers previously agreed to foot the bill for all school meals, regardless of any student’s ability to pay, through the end of the 2021-2022 school year.

Hawkins County Schools Director of Child Nutrition Mandy Kenner told News Channel 11 the federal move made the free and reduced-cost meals more attractive to children who needed them.

“When meals are free, that stigma is taken away,” said Kenner.

Starting in fall 2022, operations returned to normal, meaning parents had to fill out a form allowing the federal government to reimburse school districts for free or reduced-cost meals. Kenner said about 60% of the district’s students would likely qualify if they applied.

But Kenner said many parents aren’t aware of the change.

“Some applied late, didn’t realize that we went back to normal,” said Kenner. “We did end up with quite a large deficit at the end of the year.”

Last year in Hawkins County, the district covered around $10,000 (or 4,000 meals) in unpaid balances.

Hawkins County isn’t the only school system affected in Northeast Tennessee. Neighboring Kingsport City Schools’ own meal-covering cost was about $25,000, said Nutrition Supervisor Jennifer Walker.

Fortunately, the district only had to cover about $7,000, with the rest paid for by donations from local organizations

“We deal with kids all the time that I mean, this is our only meal is to come to school,” said Walker.

Just under 50% of Kingsport City Schools students qualify for free or reduced meals.

Three Kingsport schools are part of a program in which all students receive free meals, regardless of their economic status, Walker told News Channel 11. She said students at those schools seem to have an easier time learning.

“There’s less nurse visits, there’s less illness and there’s less behavior problems,” said Walker.

Both Walker and Kenner said they’ve worked with local legislators to restart the pandemic program. It’s a cost they claim is well worth bearing.

“We think it’s so important for kids,” said Kenner. “To learn, they need food.”