School Lunch Debt


(Photo: Erik Trautmann/Hearst Connecticut Media)

Natalie Kees

You’ve probably heard about it on the news for a while, the school lunch debt crisis is sweeping the nation. Schools all across the United States are thousands of dollars short of where they should be because of student lunch debt. People everywhere are torn about the solution to this common problem. While some say that students should be punished until their debts are payed, others say that the students should not be blamed, and that the school is at fault for not making accommodations for students who may not be able to afford a daily lunch.

After a Rhode Island school district made recent headlines for giving cold meals to students who hadn’t paid the debt for their lunches, Chobani, a yogurt company, donated money to help relieve some of these students and their schools from this debt.

But Warwick Public Schools, which was said to have accumulated around 77,000 dollars in lunch debt, was only one of several school districts with a lunch debt problem. Across the country, this issue keeps popping up. Last month, a lunchroom employee in New Hampshire was fired for allowing a student to take food and pay the school back the next day. In Minnesota, a high school tried to prevent students from attending their high school graduation ceremony if they had lunch debt.

Seventy-five percent of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA). And most of them didn’t receive a donation like Warwick Public Schools did. “The gap ranges very widely,” the SNA’s Diane Pratt-Heavner said about the range of student lunch debts across the nation. “And what we’re finding is that some districts are really experiencing very high debt accruals. Once that debt is considered uncollectible…then the school district is required to pay off the debt, and that would have to come from general funds.”

In July 2017, the US Department of Agriculture started requiring schools to make plans for students who don’t have the funds to pay for their meals. And although the Department of Agriculture spends more than 22 billion dollars a year on child nutrition programs, it prohibits schools from using federal funds to pay off meal debt.

This means that schools already needing cash have to take money allocated for educational activities and classroom materials and put it toward covering lunch money debt. Additionally, some student debts are so high that it’s tough for even large school districts to cover, such as in the case of Kyrie Jones, who has almost $1,000 of lunch debt racked up.

When Kyrie’s mother, Candice Jones, tried to complete a free lunch application to cover Kyrie’s lunches starting when he entered the seventh-grade, something went wrong and Kyrie’s student account was held accountable for the cost of all the school lunches Kyrie bought over both of his middle school years. Now a sophomore, Kyrie’s on the list for free meals at his high school, but his middle school lunch debt has followed him to high school. Thus far, he has been prohibited from attending any school events hosted by his school district; he wasn’t allowed to attend homecoming last fall, and isn’t expecting to attend prom when he’s a senior.

Kyrie’s case is unique because it stems from what seems to have been an honest mistake, but it shows the toll an unpaid lunch balance can take on a student and their family. This is also just one example of America’s school lunch debt problem. Schools everywhere are struggling as they attempt to create a balance between adapting for those who can’t pay for lunch and balancing their books.

“School districts nationwide are really feeling the squeeze…and unfortunately, I think we’re going to be hearing more about this in the coming years,” said Pratt-Heavner. “For a lot of districts, you’re looking at having to cover these costs out of the general fund. And if it’s year after year, and it’s an excessive amount of debt for the school district, that’s impactful to core educational activities.”

If Kyrie’s free lunch application had been correctly processed, then his school district would have been repaid for the cost of every meal he was given during the school year. The National School Lunch Program lowers the cost of student lunches for low-income families. The exact recompensation rates are determined by many different factors, including school location and area poverty levels. However, schools can’t use this money to repay all of the debts that have been accumulated  by their students.

This is why some school districts, such as Kyrie’s, prevent students from participating in school events until the debt is cleared. Others go so far as to prevent students with lunch debt from receiving their diplomas. To Ms. Jones, this exemplifies a broken school lunch system, one that uses students’ needs as collateral to leverage money from parents.

“They know your kids are going to be upset. They know your kids are going to be mad. And so they know that your kids are going to press you to get this bill paid,” Ms. Jones said. “I felt bad as a mother because I couldn’t take care of the bill.”

Another example of school’s struggling to cope is exemplified in the case of London Jackson. London is a first-grader in Baltimore County Public Schools. Apparently, London’s hot lunch had been thrown away by the school and replaced with a cold cheese sandwich. The difference between London and Kyrie’s case is that while Kyrie had a debt of nearly a thousand dollars, London’s school district was refusing her a hot lunch because of a debt of a mere $1.60.

Shaneka Jackson, London’s mother, said she was enraged that her daughter had been going so long without warm meals over such a small negative balance and that she was never notified about it.

“The days that my child was hungry and nobody said anything? That really made me so upset, angry, I was disgusted. I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Jones said. “I felt like less of a mom, that I was unable to put two and two together with the signs that was going on with my child.”

A working solution to this debt crisis is to increase governmental assistance. Currently, kids from low-income families can receive help, though not all families apply and some are told that they are ineligible. Students from families whose incomes are at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals. Children whose family incomes are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for meals at a reduced price. For the 2018-19 school year, 130 percent of the poverty level was $32,630 for a family of four.

The SNA thinks that the federal government should provide free meals to all students. The federal government offers universal school lunches in some areas, including in New York City and Dallas, only if a majority of the student body is eligible for assistance. While school systems, the public, and the SNA argue about solutions for this growing national problem, more and more students fall into debt everyday. A solution must be presented to keep schools from crumbling due to lack of funds, but as of right now school districts are still struggling to provide both lunches and educational needs to their many students.