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Many Students In The U.S. Are Dealing With Lunch Debt

Lunches for U.S. public school students were free during the pandemic. But that program has ended, and some parents are struggling to cover the cost.
Posted at 8:47 PM, Oct 06, 2022

Back to school stirs up a lot of emotion for kids and parents alike — excitement, nervousness and in some cases renewed stress over costs. It's something newly single mom Summerlin Ruthenborg feels weekly. 

"It's been tight. And, you know, going from a two-income household," said Ruthenborg. 

Parents like Ruthenborg haven't had to budget the cost of food at school for two years. School meals have been free for all public school students in the U.S. because of the pandemic. But this year, that's over. And combined with the squeeze of inflation, the pressure to afford school meals can be overwhelming.  

"It's just one extra thing to keep track of and remember, you know, and then you add in the shaming part on top of it. It's just real unnecessary," said Ruthenborg.  

Earlier this school year, Ruthenborg's son Alex came home with a message for his mom.  

"He came immediately home from school and was like, 'Oh, yeah, mom, I need $5 or I have to eat a bologna sandwich. I'm negative at school.' And like, a 10-year-old doesn't know what overdrawn or negative means, nor should they," she said.  

Josh Protas is the vice president of public policy at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. 

"In some places still, there's the practice of lunch shaming, where kids who have balances that are due for their reduced price school meals, have their meals thrown away in front of their classmates, and sometimes are publicly shamed by putting a message taped to their chest, or some other way that shames the child and shames the family," Protas said.   

One Pennsylvania district sent a letter to parents a few years ago warning of placing kids in foster care over unpaid debt. Now some states are cracking down on shaming tactics.  

More than a dozen states now have laws on the books that prohibit shaming over school meal debt.  

Other states are going one step further. On the ballot this fall in Colorado, voters will decide whether the state will provide free meals for all students.

"One of the beauties of universal school meals is it really does away with that stigma," said Protas. "So there's no singling out of who the children are, who are poor, or whose families are struggling… Everybody has access to school meals, that's just a basic right."  

California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont all enacted universal meals programs for kids this school year. It's something not available to Ruthenborg in Texas.  

"I would like to see that everywhere. In every state in every district. There are kids that it would absolutely change their life, you know, to not have that stigma and not have to worry about 'What am I going to be able to eat for lunch today?'" said Ruthenborg.

The Education Data Initiative shows 1.54 million students can't afford their school lunch. A 2019 School Nutrition Association survey shows more than 75% of school districts in the U.S. had school meal debt. That came out to about $262 million in outstanding meal balances every year. Texas held the highest amount at $57.6 million. 

In some districts, that debt follows the kid all the way through graduation, where sometimes diplomas are withheld until the debt is paid.  

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison put a stop to that practice in his state in 2019. And even after two years of free meals that debt still exists. The public school district in Missoula, Montana, had more than $42,000 in outstanding meal debt at the start of the year, all racked up pre-pandemic. With lunch at $3 a day, it adds up quickly.  

The USDA held a webinar for state agencies and school districts just before the school year that laid out policy suggestions on unpaid meals.  

"Remember, schools should be communicating with parents, not students," said Melissa Elder, the interim supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Education's School Nutrition Programs. 

"It's not something that children should have to deal with. You know, like I said, they've got my email, my phone number and they've got my address, everything about me — pick up the phone and call me," said Ruthenborg. 

Some companies like La Colombe coffee roasters and Chobani have made headlines for paying off large amounts of student meal debt. A 14-year-old in Austin, Texas, raised more than $10,000 to pay off school debts. Organizations like MAZON want to keep the momentum going with other measures to prevent any debt from racking up in the first place.  

"There shouldn't be a shame if you're struggling to eat," said Protas.