Correction: In a previous version of this article, the median amount of school lunch debt was misstated as having climbed to $2,500 per school. That amount is actually per school district.
Ballooning school lunch debt climbed from a median of $2,000 to $2,500 per school district between 2016 and 2018, according to the School Nutrition Association. Typically, students will not be denied hot lunch, but their debt remains on their student profile and often restricts them from after-school events and activities, Chalkbeat reports.
A report in The Washington Post showed K-12 students in the District of Columbia area owed $500,000 in lunch debt, while debt in Denver stood at $356,000 in 2017-2018 — a 2,600% increase over the $13,000 in debt that students owed in 2016.
Students who come from families with less than 130% of the federal poverty threshold — $32,530 for a a family of four — are eligible for free lunch, while the reduced lunch threshold sits at $46,435 per year for a family of four. These numbers vary by location and area poverty levels.
In the past, students with negative lunch account balances were fed “alternative lunches” that consisted of milk and a cold sandwich. There have even been reports of students’ lunches being thrown away if they were unable to pay.
Rather than shaming students whose accounts are in the red, many schools now provide them the same meals as everyone else. Yet these on-credit meals come at a cost. To further reduce shaming, students may not be told that their account is negative. Without alerts, parents may not be aware that their child is running up a lunch debt until their student is unable to participate in a sport or activity. By then, the debt may be so large that the family is unable to pay it off.
In terms of accumulative lunch debt, community and business groups are helping. For example, in 2017, a Denver nonprofit and Denver business owner paid the entire lunch debt tab for all the city's students in the 2016-2017 school year. That gave the students, and their parents, a fresh start.
The USDA states that students’ unpaid lunch debt can be carried over from one year to the next. If a school can’t collect the debt, it must pull it from the general funds or similar source. A 2015 effort by the Obama administration encouraged school districts to offer a free hot lunch to everyone, regardless of students’ ability to pay. The free lunches assured all students had access to healthier hot meals, and no students would be stigmatized for ordering it.
The Community Eligibility Provision is another option some schools in low-income areas have been using to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost. A school’s eligibility depends on the percentage of students in families that qualify for other public assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.