School Lunches: The Real Debt, The Real National Crisis

While the school year has concluded for most of America, school lunches are a hot topic in the news.

  • Warwick, RI public schools were shamed for offering sunbutter and jelly sandwiches to children who were in debt to the school lunch program.  The school lunch program was $77,000 in the debt from students who couldn’t pay for their meals.

  • A nine year old in California used his saved allowance money to pay the lunch debt for three peers at the end of the school year.

  • Denver, CO provides lunches for students, whether they can pay or not...and the lunch program debt is $365,000.

  • St. Paul, MN public schools have had school lunch debt paid for by a charity in honor of Philandro Castile, the lunchroom worker who was killed by police. Castile used to pay for students’ lunches who couldn’t afford them.

  • A lunch worker in New Hampshire was fired for giving a student a lunch that he did not have the funds to pay for on that day.

When I googled “school lunch…”  Google suggested “school lunch debt” as the fifth result.  That the result wasn’t higher on the list, was surprising to me.  As a former high school teacher in a middle-class school district, the number of students who didn’t have lunch because they didn’t have money and couldn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch was shockingly high.  

In order to qualify for free or reduced lunch, a family must earn below 185% of the national poverty line to qualify for reduced lunch. That’s below about $60,000 for a family of four.  Many families are above that poverty level, yet once household and living expenses are paid, little money remains for breakfast and lunch food or lunch money for the children. 


Schools typically do not turn away students who ask for lunch and can not pay, but rather bill the parents at the end of the school year or offer the student an alternative cold lunch.  Some schools will stamp a child’s hand that they can not have a hot lunch due to debt or hold back caps and gowns from graduating seniors who have lunch debt. This practice is known as “lunch shaming” and keeps many students from taking a lunch from the cafeteria. Anecdotal stories tell us that students are embarrassed by these policies and many do not eat lunch rather than have their peers know they can’t pay for their meal. These students sit in class hungry. 

If you’ve ever sat through an education or child psychology class, you’ll know that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs says that before learning can take place, a person’s most basic needs must be met: food, shelter, clothing, etc. People can not learn if they are hungry, whether they are kindergarteners, high school juniors, or a CEO of a large corporation.  

Some urban school districts have taken the problem of school lunch debt and food insecurity to hand and are offering free lunch to all students, reducing a barrier to learning.  Communities where 60% or more of the population is eligible for free or reduced lunch are able to apply to USDA for free breakfast and lunch for the entire district population. Parents don’t have to remember to fill out the free/reduced lunch forms, the district doesn’t have to check all that paperwork to be sure students are eligible, and every single student has access to breakfast and lunch every school day.  

Unfortunately, not all school districts qualify for totally free breakfast and lunch for their students, though all school districts have students who are going into debt or skipping meals because they are unable to pay. Students are going hungry whether they meet the government standards for free or reduced lunch or not.

Of all the candidates running for president in 2020, Bernie Sanders is the only candidate to have mentioned school lunches, tweeting: “It's simple: all students must have access to healthy school meals. No child should go hungry or be shamed for not being able to pay. As a nation we must provide year-round, free universal school meals for our children.” Sanders hasn’t released a plan for a free lunch program for students nationwide, despite his tweet. No other candidate has released a proposal to deal with the student lunch debt issue, so apparently we’ll be relying on nine year olds and their allowance money to clear up student lunch debt for the foreseeable future.

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