How to Help Reduce School Lunch Debt

Earlier this month, one Rhode Island school district made headlines after giving some of its students—those with unpaid balances for school meals—cold sun butter and jelly sandwiches (along with milk and veggies) instead of hot meal items, available to all other students.

School lunch debt is a nightmare that’s become a common reality, giving rise to the practice of stigmatizing kids or “lunch shaming” them because they’re unable to afford the full cost of a lunch, via practices like detention or providing them with cold or soggy alternatives to, well, decent food.

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Back in 2016, a third-grader was given a stamp on his hand that read “I need lunch money,” unaware of what the statement even read, a practice that has become common among some school districts. As recently as May, a six-year-old experienced a literal “walk of shame,” after being forced to return a hot lunch in her cafeteria because of a low balance in her account. And yes, schools will even hire contract debt collectors to get their money—one way or another.

“‘School lunch debt’ should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Bernie Sanders recently tweeted, addressing one nine year old’s efforts to reduce lunch debt for his entire class.

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While there isn’t a reported, cumulative total of lunch debt in the country today, CNN reported that 75% of U.S. school districts had lunch debt during the 2016-2017 school year. In a survey of 1,500 school districts by the School Nutrition Association, the average median debt also rose from $2,000 to $2,500, which doesn’t necessarily paint a picture of the overall total; as New Food Economy writes, K-12 students in D.C. school districts, together, owed roughly $500,000 as of December 2018.

And unfortunately, there isn’t an answer in the immediate future to this problem, unless statewide or federal legislation is passed guaranteeing universal school lunch. An existing program known as CEP, adopted by New York City school districts, has a number of operational stipulations that make it expensive for all eligible schools to participate. (In states like New Mexico and California, lunch shaming policies have also been banned.) As New Food Economy also mentions, labor and rising food costs account for at least some of the reasons why some school districts can’t afford to accommodate students’ needs.

Currently, the only real solution to fix this problem is to personally donate money—at least until legislation changes—but it’s hardly a long-term answer.

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Donate to local efforts and contact your representatives

If you want to donate to a fund that will help reduce school lunch debt, you can contribute funds to groups like School Lunch Fairy, which lets you choose to donate to an overall fund to help any district in need or designate a particular district you’d like to help (though they may not support them all).

If you want to donate to a particular school district, there’s no shortage of local GoFundMe efforts; you should contact the school district associated with the GoFundMe to make sure it’s properly vetted. You also have the option of reaching out to a school district with lunch debt and finding out if you can start your own funding efforts with their approval.

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Lastly, reach out to your local representatives in Congress to raise the issue of school lunch debt; it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to them, but power comes in numbers (and mass phone calls). As Civil Eats writes, later this year, Congress will also reauthorize children’s nutrition programs which affects school lunches nationwide. These programs were last reauthorized in 2010 and don’t explicitly address the very current issues of lunch debt.

“During the child nutrition reauthorization process, Congress has the opportunity to change some of the regulations that have increased student lunch debt,” Civil Eats’ Nadra Nittle writes. “It could alter how schools are reimbursed for student meals, which districts qualify for the community eligibility provision, and the criteria families must meet to receive a free lunch.”

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So send a message to your representative (or give them a call!) and let them know there’s potential for change. Lunch shaming shouldn’t exist, but should become an essential conversation as we head into 2020.


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