Ballooning lunch debt is a problem for families and schools across the country. And it’s evidence of a broken school lunch system that uses students’ needs as collateral to leverage money from parents.
Candrice Jones thought she was in the clear. It was the fall of 2015, and she had just submitted the necessary paperwork to secure free lunch for her son Kyrie, a seventh-grader at Coolidge Junior High School in Granite City, Illinois. This, she believed at the time, would lift a significant economic load off her plate. Jones was working various part-time handwork jobs for a temp company, and her husband was unemployed after suffering injuries in a car accident. Previously, he’d worked in warehousing. She couldn’t afford to cover the cost of a full-price, hot school meal every day—not if she wanted to pay the bills, too.
Every day, Kyrie did what school kids across the country do. He punched his student number into a keypad at the end of the lunch line, ate his food in the cafeteria with friends, and got on with the second half of his school day.
But over a year later, Jones discovered that Kyrie’s free lunch application had been processed incorrectly. After she’d submitted it, the program covered Kyrie’s meals for just one month. Reimbursements then dropped off for reasons the school has not made clear to Jones. Instead of getting free lunch every day, Kyrie had been racking up lunch debt—nearly $1,000 worth of it.
Generally, parents can monitor their children’s lunch balances online. Coolidge Junior High, like many schools, uses a software system called Skyward to keep families updated on grades and lunch dues owed. But Jones didn’t use the program because Kyrie’s grades weren’t logged into that particular system. He has a learning disability and participated in an individualized education program, which provides its paper evaluations by mail.
It wasn’t until one of Kyrie’s teachers unintentionally caught a glimpse of his lunch account balance in passing, that Jones was alerted to the error. A full year had passed, and the debt—a mass of innumerable incremental charges—had accumulated into a single, daunting total.
“It’s almost a thousand dollars,” Jones told me by phone. She couldn’t pay it off if she wanted to: “I don’t even have it.”
“I felt bad as a mother because I couldn’t take care of the bill.”
When Jones filed a second free lunch application, the application “worked,” and Kyrie’s lunches were covered for the remaining months of eighth grade. As for the lingering debt, a school administrator suggested making monthly payments.
Jim Greenwald, superintendent of the Granite City School District, declined to comment on the Jones’s case for this story, citing privacy guidelines. But he did point out that all students are served hot meals regardless of their ability to pay. Which isn’t the same as getting free lunch. Students still remain on the hook for every lunch they eat. That’s the reason why, even now, Kyrie’s middle-school lunch debt remains on his record and continues to cast a shadow over his academic experience.
Now a sophomore at Granite City High School, Kyrie has been barred from attending any school events hosted by the district. He wasn’t permitted to attend homecoming at the start of his freshman year. Instead, he stayed at home and Facetimed with his friends, who were at the dance. He didn’t attend homecoming last fall either, and isn’t expecting to attend prom when he’s a senior.
USDA / Flickr
Kyrie’s case is unique because it stems from what seems to have been a clerical error, but it demonstrates the toll an unpaid lunch balance can take on a student and their family. It’s also just one facet of America’s ballooning school lunch debt problem. Schools themselves, in some cases, are struggling, as they attempt to strike a balance between accommodating those who can’t pay for lunch and balancing their books.
There’s no official estimate on the cumulative total of school lunch debt nationwide, as I’ve reported previously. But according to a survey of 1,500 school districts represented by the School Nutrition Association (SNA), median lunch debt rose from $2,000 to $2,500 per district between 2016 and 2018, and anecdotal stories from individual districts paint an increasingly concerning picture.
Local news outlets report on surges in unpaid debt on a regular basis, from Redmond, Oregon, to Shawnee Mission, Kansas, to name some recent examples. In December of 2018, The Washington Post reported that K-12 students in the D.C. area, which comprises multiple school districts, owed a collective $500,000 in unpaid lunch balances. At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, Denver, Colorado’s school districts saw meal debt rise to $356,000 from $13,000 in 2016—more than a 2,600-percent increase.
“School districts nationwide are really feeling the squeeze … and unfortunately, I think we’re going to be hearing more about this in the coming years,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), referring to the persistence of school lunch debt. “For a lot of districts, you’re looking at having to cover these costs out of the general fund. And if it’s year after year, and it’s an excessive amount of debt for the school district, that’s impactful to core educational activities.”
Had Kyrie’s free lunch application been processed correctly, the school district would have been reimbursed for the cost of every meal he was served during the school year. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), subsidizes the cost of lunch for low-income families.
The federal lunch program spends $13.6 billion on reimbursements annually.
Students from families with incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold ($32,630 for a family of four) are eligible for free lunch. Students from families with incomes above that value but below 185 percent of the threshold ($46,435 for a family of four) qualify for reduced-price lunch. The exact reimbursement rates are determined by an array of factors, including location and area poverty levels.
According to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), the federal lunch program spends $13.6 billion on reimbursements annually. But funding comes with its own set of limitations. Schools are permitted to use the money toward obvious costs of running a cafeteria like ingredients and workers, as well as indirect costs like payroll and gas. However, they’re prohibited from using it to wipe out unpaid lunch debt.
They are, however, permitted to use the funds toward contracting a for-profit collection agency to collect that debt.
That’s why schools put so much pressure on families to pay outstanding balances. Some, as in Kyrie’s case, prevent students from participating in school events until the debt is cleared. Others go so far as to prevent students with lunch debt from receiving their diplomas. To Candrice Jones, this exemplifies a broken school lunch system, one that uses students’ needs as collateral to leverage money from parents.
“They know your kids are going to be upset. They know your kids are going to be mad. And so they know that your kids are going to press you to get this bill paid,” she told me. “I felt bad as a mother because I couldn’t take care of the bill.”
Though total lunch debt varies by district, most reporting on the issue credits its rise to policies that prohibit the practice of “lunch-shaming,” which refers to an array of methods schools use to stigmatize students who can’t afford the full price of school lunch. Some schools literally stamp students who can’t pay, others serve them cold, “substitute” lunches—like sandwiches—instead of hot meals. The practice has come under intense scrutiny in recent years.
USDA / Flickr
Shaneka Jackson’s daughter, London, a first-grader in Baltimore County, Maryland, experienced lunch-shaming firsthand. Every day for over a month, Jackson said in a phone interview, London’s hot lunch tray was taken away, thrown out, and replaced with a cold cheese sandwich. She says she had noticed London’s eating habits changing at home, but didn’t realize that they were linked to her lunch experiences at school. Until one morning, when London, in tears, pleaded to stay home.
“My daughter was humiliated. A couple of her friends were teasing her in school because her food kept getting thrown away,” Jackson said. “She’s in the first grade, she’s only six years old. She’s never had anybody not feed her.”
Jackson, an army veteran and single mother of three, works full-time as a bartender at a well-known restaurant chain. And she knew that London qualified for free lunch under NSLP income guidelines. But instead, London was given cheese sandwiches instead of a hot lunch because her school had erroneously recorded her lunch account as having a negative balance of $1.60.
Jackson said she was incensed that her daughter had been going so long without warm meals over such a minute negative balance, and that she was never notified about it.
“The days that my child was hungry and nobody said anything? That really made me so upset, angry, I was disgusted. I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I felt like less of a mom, that I was unable to put two and two together with the signs that was going on with my child.”
“She’s in the first grade, she’s only six years old. She’s never had anybody not feed her.”
In 2014, FNS found that students were being lunch-shamed at 60 percent of public schools across the country. Since then, the practice has been widely criticized by parents, educators, administrators, and anti-hunger advocacy groups. In 2017, New Mexico became the first state to ban lunch-shaming policies. Many other states have followed suit, including Washington, Pennsylvania, and California.
Numerous news stories have suggested that an end to lunch-shaming is the driving force behind rising debt. But Keith Fiedler, director of nutrition services at Redmond School District in Oregon, thinks that’s an oversimplification.
“That is a factor—there’s no doubt,” he says. Fiedler has worked in school nutrition services since 1991. “[H]ad it just been that alone, meal account debt would have gone up, but it probably would have just gone up to a new normal that was a manageable cost of doing business.”
Fiedler says there are many nuances in school food operations that contribute to the lunch debt issue, including rising food and labor costs. He also pointed out that USDA’s income guidelines for free lunch fail to accommodate for complex socioeconomic realities, such as high costs of living in many cities.
“The issue is very complex and includes a range of factors from regulatory, legislative, economic, social, financial, to pedagogical.”
In the same 2014 study, FNS found that 35 percent of schools resort to “administrative actions,” like prohibiting a student from attending homecoming because they’ve got lunch debt. Another 6 percent of schools send unpaid bills to collections agencies.
This exemplifies a broken school lunch system, one that uses students’ needs as collateral to leverage money from parents.
The Columbia Public School District in Missouri is one such example. It’s the seventh-largest district in the state, serving over 18,000 students. It also prohibits lunch-shaming. To curb its lunch-debt problem, it signed a four-year contract with Hawthorn Recovery Services, a collection agency that goes after families with unpaid lunch bills. The agency retains a percentage of the sums it recoups.
When I asked Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for the district, how much Hawthorn Recovery Services had collected, she declined to give a number. Fullum suggested this figure wouldn’t be reflective of the contract’s efficacy. She did say that often, just receiving a letter from Hawthorn is enough to push parents to pay off debt directly to the district.
“Moving forward, our measure of success would be that our debt doesn’t continue to accumulate or levels off,” Fullum said. “We’re just trying to survive this new financial situation … in all the national school-lunch programs across the nation.”
Columbia is far from the only district that uses a collection agency to recoup student lunch debt. In December of 2018, the Cranston Public School District in Rhode Island was widely criticized for contracting with a collection agency to go after unpaid dues. In the prior school year, it had written off nearly $100,000 in debt.
In 2017, California banned schools from contracting with debt collectors entirely to collect unpaid lunch balances. But for much of the country, debt collection and lunch-shaming are the best ways schools have figured out to mitigate lunch debt in the near term. The long game is another story.
School nutrition advocates I spoke with said that universal school lunch is the surest way to guarantee healthy meals for all students without impacting school operating budgets.
USDA / Flickr
“The issue of unpaid school meal debt really does shine a light on the challenges within the school nutrition programs,” says Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school programs for the Food and Research Action Center (FRAC), an anti-hunger nonprofit. “In an ideal world, school breakfast and school lunch would be offered at no charge to all students, and that would be the easiest way to solve school districts’ challenges with unpaid school meal debt.”
That’s not as pie-in-the-sky as it may sound. Many low-income areas already serve lunch at no charge to students, under a USDA program called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which was launched nationwide in 2014. Under CEP, schools that serve a certain threshold of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches can simply bypass the logistical hurdle of collecting and submitting applications altogether.
The program has seen increasing participation since its launch. In the fall of 2017, the New York City School District—the largest in the nation—began operating under CEP. Today, its millions of students eat lunch at no cost during the school year, and can also access free lunches through its free summer meals program.
As of the 2016-2017 school year, less than half of eligible school districts had actually adopted CEP, according to FRAC. Although it can be an effective tool for feeding students in income-strapped districts, it does come with stipulations.
First, schools aren’t actually reimbursed for every meal they serve to students. Instead, each district receives reimbursements for whatever percentage of their student body qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches, multiplied by 1.6. For many schools under CEP, that means swallowing some operational costs.
“The issue is very complex and includes a range of factors from regulatory, legislative, economic, social, financial, to pedagogical.”
The Redmond School District, in Oregon, was previously part of the CEP program. But Fiedler says the district eventually left it because it got too costly.
Advocates hope that the program will be adapted and improved in the future, because when it works, it works. Unlike the free and reduced-price lunch program, CEP takes paperwork out of the equation for families. It also relieves school administrators of the exacting responsibility of tracking down individual families to write off debt.
“Charging some families and not charging others, and then school districts having to struggle to collect that unpaid school meal debt is not a great situation for anyone,” FitzSimons says.
Recall the Granite City School District where Kyrie Jones goes to school. There, 17.6 percent of residents live in poverty, according to the most recent U.S. Census. That’s five percentage points higher than the national poverty rate. Within the school district, 62.2 percent of students are considered “low income,” a broad term that includes children of families who receive public aid, children in foster care, and children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
In the 2015-2016 school year, only the district’s elementary schools participated in CEP. At the time, lunch debt for junior high and high schools totaled nearly $26,000. The next year, that number rose to more than $38,000. In the fall of 2017, the district expanded its participation in CEP to include junior high schools, as well. As a result, the district’s lunch debt dropped to about $12,500, and all students from kindergarten to eighth grade could eat lunch without cost or paperwork.
But it was too late for Kyrie Jones, who had moved on to high school by then.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story listed the percentage change of Denver’s school lunch debt as 96 percent.