Debt Relief

School Lunch Debt: Why It’s a Problem, What’s Being Done And Programs for Needy Families

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With the rise in reports of “lunch shaming,” or policies that embarrass kids who can’t afford a meal, school lunch debt has been thrust into the national spotlight. But food insecurity among students is neither uncommon nor a new issue.

In 2018, there were roughly 6 million children living in food-insecure homes, which means that parents or providers were uncertain if they would have enough food during the year, according to the USDA. Plus, a proposal to close a loophole in SNAP funding could leave as many as 500,000 children without access to free- or reduced-priced lunches in 2020.

Fortunately, there are other federal, state and local programs that help families who are struggling to afford food.

Food assistance programs for low-income families

Get acquainted with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s state programs, and check out the table below to see what federally-funded programs may be available to your family.

Nationwide organizations for food-insecure families
Organization What it is Phone number
The Emergency Food Assistance Program A federal program that supplements the diets of low-income Americans by providing free emergency food assistance. Search local program numbers by clicking here.
Federal Child Nutrition Program The government’s free and reduced lunch meal program, which includes the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program. Parents can apply anytime of the school year if they meet certain income requirements. Contact your local school district for an application.
Feeding America A national network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries that serve 1 in 7 Americans. 800-771-2303
Homeless Shelter Directory A directory that helps users find nearby homeless shelters, food banks, pantries and soup kitchens. N/A
No Kid Hungry Summer Meals A texting hotline that connects children and families with summer meal sites in their area. Text “FOOD” (or “COMIDA” for Spanish) to 877-877.
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children A federal program to benefit low-income, pregnant and postpartum women, as well as children up to age 5. Benefit eligibility is determined by state, and the grant funds supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education. Search phone numbers by state by clicking here.
Summer Food Service Program A USDA program that provides free meals to children when school is out of session. 202-720-2791
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) SNAP, colloquially known as “food stamps,” provides benefits to low-income individuals and families through an Electronic Benefits Transfer card that can be used to purchase groceries. 800-221-5689
WhyHunger A network that empowers grassroots organizations and connects Americans with resources to find food near them. 1-800-542-6479

These national resources are great to have in your toolbox when you’re struggling to make money to cover bills as well as food costs. But it’s just as important to get in touch with the administration at your local school to get connected with local food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and other programs that benefit families that suffer from food insecurity and hunger. You can even approach your school’s cafeteria manager or district nutrition director.

School lunches help combat obesity and food insecurity, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a nonprofit supporting high-quality, low-cost meals in schools. And when schoolchildren can’t afford a nutritious lunch and are hungry, they may struggle to succeed in their studies.

Unpaid lunch debt is rising among school districts

About three quarters of American school districts carry school lunch debt, according to a 2019 report from the SNA. The median debt at the end of the 2017-2018 school year was $2,500, and it increased to $3,400 by the end of the 2018-2019 school year.

“Debt has been increasing despite widespread efforts to enroll eligible students in the free meal program, support families and prevent or minimize student meal charges,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the SNA.

In schools that reported lunch debt, there was a wide range of debt: $10 to $500,000. Plus, the debt increases with district size. Smaller districts had a median of $825 in debt, while largest districts reported a median of $32,000 in school lunch debt.

Schools are prohibited from using federal funds to pay off lunch debt, Pratt-Heavner said, so the burden often falls on districts that are already strapped for funding.

In some cases, families have to pay a high price for school lunch debt

Some students are served cold sandwiches

In an effort to prevent lunch debt from increasing, some school districts have suggested offering cheaper lunch alternatives to kids who don’t have lunch money.

Warwick Public Schools in Rhode Island faced scrutiny in May 2019 for announcing via Facebook that all children with outstanding school lunch debts would be served a “sun butter and jelly sandwich” until the balance was paid in full. It only took three days for chairwoman Karen Bachus to release a statement on the school district’s Facebook page that they would allow students their choice of lunch “regardless of their account status.”

Others are excluded from school activities

Some kids may pay the price of unpaid lunch debt in embarrassment and exclusion. In May 2019, a Minnesota school district attempted to block students with lunch debt from graduating.

Sometimes, just the embarrassment of being publicly shamed is bad enough for impressionable children. In 2016, one elementary school in Alabama was criticized after sending kids home with stamps on their arms reading “I Need Lunch Money.” Another person complained via Twitter that their friend’s son was “branded” in the same way. Since then, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has taken an official stance to discourage this form of lunch shaming.

Debt collectors may come after parents

Reports of school districts in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania surfaced this summer of school districts hiring debt collectors to try to recover the money that some families owe for lunch debt.

Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania went as far to warn parents of being taken to Dependency Court over lunch debts, according to a letter obtained by the New York Times. The letter, sent to parents whose children owed $10 or more in lunch debt, said that failure to pay could even result in the children being placed in foster care. This took place in July 2019, and the vice president of the school board later said that the letter was not approved through him and that the district would not take families to court over school lunch debt.

What’s being done to combat school lunch debt?

More people are advocating for universal school meal programs

The SNA supports universal school meals, which provides all students school meals at no charge. Vermont senator and 2020 presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders also expressed support for universal school meals to all American children.

Universal school lunch may seem like a progressive concept, but it’s already been implemented in other countries. Take Sweden, for example, where law mandates that elementary schools must provide nutritious lunches to students, free of charge.

Of course, there is one example of this program and its success in the U.S. The Community Eligibility Provision implements free lunches for schools and school districts in low-income areas.

Pratt-Heavner said that universal school meal programs eliminate the stigma behind free and reduced-priced lunches at school. “School nutrition professionals are dedicated to feeding children,” she said. “To address the unpaid meal issue and to ensure all students are nourished and ready to learn, Congress should support universal free school meals.”

While the idea of free school meals is becoming more visible on the national stage due to the 2020 presidential election, the concept is still in its infancy in America. And proposed policies actually seem to be going in the opposite direction.

States are stepping in to ban lunch shaming

California, Iowa, New Mexico and Oregon have signed laws in recent years that bar schools from shaming children with school lunch debt. This includes practices where children are served alternative meals that are less-appetizing until the debt is repaid. Although these laws are a victory in the battle against child hunger, they don’t address the underlying issue: That many schools are continuing practices that treat students differently for being unable to afford food at school.

Schools are employing new strategies to help families manage debt

Sometimes, families are overdue on lunch bills simply because they don’t know how to repay lunch debt. The SNA reports that the following tactics have been implemented to support families in minimizing debt:

  • Access to online payment and account balances for parents and caregivers
  • School staff notifying parents directly about low balances or meal charges
  • School staff helping families fill out applications for free and reduced-price lunch
  • Automated phone calls, texts and emails notifying parents of low lunch balances
  • Donations gifted to eliminate school debt

Those more fortunate are offering to pay off some lunch debt

Philanthropists and ordinary people alike have stepped up to help struggling families get rid of their lunch debts.

A quick search for “school lunch debt” on the fundraising website GoFundMe yields more than 600 results for campaigns ─ many of which have met or exceeded their goals. Todd Carmichael, co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, recently paid $22,000 in past-due cafeteria bills after a Pennsylvania school district threatened to place children with lunch debt in foster care. And Secondskin Tattoo, based in St. Marys, Ga., raised $8,100 to pay off overdue lunch accounts at their local school district.

While the donations are certainly appreciated where they’re granted, it’s not sustainable to rely on the goodwill of people to pay off student lunch debt. Until the issue is resolved, though, families struggling with food insecurity can look into the government and nonprofit programs outlined above.


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