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How states and crowdfunding are tackling the growing problem of student lunch debt

New Mexico passed a Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights in 2017 to end the practice of “lunch shaming.”

Some schools turn away students with delinquent meal accounts.
Student lunch debt is a growing problem in the United States and can result in students experiencing “lunch shaming,” or being turned away from the lunch line.
Digital First Media/Getty Images

Charitable giving is a hallmark of the holiday season, but this year, do-gooders aren’t just dropping off clothes for the needy and sending food to soup kitchens. They’re paying off student lunch debt — a growing problem in the nation’s schools.

To eat the lunches provided by school cafeterias, students not enrolled in federally subsidized free or reduced lunch programs must have funds in their meal accounts. But if their families run out of money, students accrue lunch debt or may be denied meals. Some schools give students a grace period, allowing them to continue eating lunch for several days or weeks before turning them away from the lunch line. But others have denied students lunches for having accounts overdrawn by just 30 cents.

According to the 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report by the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit representing student meal providers nationally, 75 percent of school districts had unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2016-’17 school year. That’s up 4 percentage points from SNA’s 2014 report on school nutrition, which analyzed meal debt from the 2012-’13 school year.

Some concerned citizens, alarmed that this problem is widespread and that children with meal debt may go hungry during the school day, are paying off student lunch debt. Last week, for example, 25 human resource workers in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District fundraised $25,000 to wipe out students’ overdue lunch bills.

In Minnesota, a Lions Club recently gave Excelsior Elementary School $2,000 to cover students’ lunch debt, and in Michigan, an anonymous donor gave $7,200 to the Parchment School District to erase student lunch debt there. Even students are taking part in the trend, such as Florida fifth-grader Arman Shah, who raised $100 of his own money to pay off delinquent lunch accounts at Avalon Elementary School in Orange County.

Arman said he made the contribution after seeing a documentary about “lunch shaming,” a practice in which students who’ve drained their school meal accounts are denied lunches, served cold sandwiches instead of hot food, or sent home with stamps on their hands to remind their parents to settle their balances. In some cases, cafeteria workers have thrown out the meals children with negative balances order.

This sort of shaming may be pervasive. Last year, the US Agriculture Department mandated that school districts introduce policies to settle student lunch debt and to let parents know about their delinquent accounts at the start of the school year to prevent children from being humiliated in front of peers.

“Rather than a hand stamp on a kid to say, ‘I need lunch money,’ send an email or a text message to the parent,” Tina Namian, an Agriculture Department official, told the Associated Press in 2017.

The federal government, however, does not determine how districts recover debts from families, and some districts use punitive measures to settle students’ meal accounts. The Cranston School District in Rhode Island recently announced that on January 2 it would begin using a collection agency, Transworld Systems, to recoup student lunch debt.

According to the school district’s chief operating officer Raymond Votto Jr., Cranston schools have incurred $45,859 in unpaid lunch debt and had to write off more than $95,000 from September 1, 2016, to June 30, 2018. Votto told NBC News 10 that it was using a collection agency because the district lunch program could not afford to lose more revenue. Students with delinquent accounts, though, will still be served food.

As Cranston prepares to dispatch debt collectors on families in the district, states such as New Mexico have passed legislation to ban lunch shaming and crowdfunding campaigns take a grassroots approach to the problem. But as economic issues like food insecurity, unemployment, and a lack of affordable housing remain concerns nationally, the problem of student lunch debt is likely to persist.

Who are the students accumulating lunch debt?

Last year, 6.5 million American children lived in households in which food insecurity, inconsistent access to food, was a problem for both them and the adults in their homes. And 540,000 children lived in homes in which they and at least one other child had “very low food security.” If these children come from families that meet the federal guidelines for poverty, they qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

But not all children who live in homes where food insecurity and financial instability are problems qualify for such lunches, as their parents or guardians might still bring in too much money to be classified as economically disadvantaged. When that’s the case, these children must still pay for the full price of school lunches, which cost about $3.20 on average. It is often these youth who fall behind on lunch bills.

PBS NewsHour explained the problem last year: “Free and reduced-price meals funded by the Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program shield the nation’s poorest children from so-called lunch shaming. Kids can eat for free if a family of four earns less than about $32,000 a year or at a discount if earnings are under $45,000. It’s households with slightly higher incomes that are more likely to struggle…”

Roughly 6 percent of districts outright refuse to serve children with overdue lunch bills, a 2014 federal report found. Thirty-nine percent refuse to provide these youth warm meals, instead providing them with snacks or sandwiches. While the warm meals are designed to meet the nutritional requirements of growing children, the meal replacements given to students with delinquent lunch accounts do not, the report found.

Crowdfunding campaigns to erase student lunch debt are one way concerned citizens are addressing the issue, but some states have also put policies into place to prevent students from being humiliated in cafeterias or deprived of nutritious meals.

Students line up for cafeteria lunch at Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles.
High school students are at particular risk of being turned away from the lunch line if their meal accounts are overdrawn.
Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

How states are tackling the issue of student lunch debt

New Mexico stands out as the state that’s taken the most comprehensive approach to student lunch debt. In 2017, it passed its Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which requires schools to help low-income families apply for free meals or sign up eligible students automatically.

The bill also mandates that schools contact families with outstanding balances and prevents schools from making students with delinquent lunch accounts work off their debt by cleaning the cafeteria. Most significantly, it requires schools to give all children, even those behind on their accounts, healthful meals. Some districts there, such as Las Cruces Public Schools, used to turn away high school students without money to cover lunch.

New Mexico’s bill protects the needs of students to have access to healthy meals at school, while ensuring that school administrators are able to qualify eligible students for free school meals,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school-time programs at the Food Research & Action Center in a 2017 statement. “Other states should follow New Mexico’s lead.”

Other states, such as California and Texas, have also taken steps to address lunch debt in a way that does not shame or deprive students. Last year, Texas passed a bill that gives students with negative balances grace periods, so that they’re not abruptly turned away from the lunch line. Feeding Texas, a network of food banks, has raised tens of thousands of dollars to cover student lunch debt in the state.

In California, a law was passed in 2017 to prevent schools from denying meals to students with delinquent lunch accounts. Some districts, such as Torrance Unified near Los Angeles, only served crackers, milk, and a fruit or vegetable to middle and high school students without money in their lunch accounts.

The new bill requires school districts to provide these students with the same meals as their classmates. The law also mandates that schools take action to help families apply for free or reduced lunches and inform families of delinquent accounts when they’re 10 days overdue. Debt collectors are not notified.

Of course, that’s not the case in Cranston, Rhode Island, where the school district just made headlines for its plans to use a debt collection agency to recover past due lunch money. While states like New Mexico show what a model approach to student lunch debt might look like, it is an anomaly. Larger structural changes are needed before the country can address student lunch debt in a way that takes into account both students and their struggling caretakers.

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