Lunch debt leaves kids hungry and emotionally scarred. And students shouldn't be punished for their socioeconomic circumstances. Here's what needs to change.
illustration of school lunch tray in which the napkin is an overdue notice
Credit: Illustration by Pete Ryan

Growing up in a financially insecure household can have lasting effects on a child that reverberate well into adulthood. I should know—my own life provides the perfect example.

I was raised in a small two bedroom, one bathroom house in an underdeveloped neighborhood. My parents, both immigrants, worked hard to make sure the fridge was always stocked and that I had somewhere to sleep at night. I was fortunate to never face the hardships of homelessness or hunger. But from a very young age, I was acutely aware of money and its seemingly inescapable power over our lives.

Conversations about "the bills" were essentially an everyday occurrence. Envelopes stamped with "final notice" were frequently in our mailbox. I recall my mother always stressed about making the mortgage payment each month. Often, we'd be a few months behind. We received gift cards for groceries from a local church we attended. And it was typical for me to carry lunch debt at school.

That's why I applauded when California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in October mandating that all students receive a school lunch regardless of whether they can afford it. While this concept of feeding kids at school without regard for their economic situation at home seems obvious, several school districts across the country are actively working to compromise what might be that student's only hot meal for the day.

Earlier this year, for example, one Rhode Island school district announced a controversial policy: Students carrying lunch debt would be permitted to a single sandwich (sunflower seed butter and jelly, to be exact). The backlash was swift. Thousands of people commented on social media, calling out the approach and describing it as "lunch shaming."

But the issues go deeper than merely lunch shaming. "The USDA Food Insecurity data tell us that individuals living in food-insecure households report not being able to afford meals, worrying food will run out, not eating when hungry, cutting meal sizes, skipping meals, or going a whole day without eating," says Jean Ann Fischer, director of the Nutrition Education Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

These experiences could lead to "a disordered relationship with food," explains Fischer. "When you deny hunger—and you also aren't sure where and when your next meal will be—that can alter your relationship with food, your behaviors, and potentially your sense of well-being." And for students dealing with these situations at home, school lunch can be an incredibly consequential meal. It can also make it hard for them to be "resilient to food shaming" compared to another student who isn't experiencing the same issues at home.

Ultimately, that Rhode Island school district did an about-face, reversing plans to implement its cold sandwich policy. And while it's easy to vilify schools for even entertaining such options, many are in a really tough spot.

The USDA manages the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced meals to a majority of the country's schoolchildren. (In 2018, that number was approximately 30 million students.) However, students who aren't in the program aren't eligible for those federal dollars to be used to pay off their lunch debt. That puts school districts—many of which are already struggling financially—in the position of scrambling to cover those costs.

It doesn't need to be this way.

What Needs to Be Done About School Lunch Debt

"I believe when state legislation legally mandates children to attend school, the state is taking responsibility for that child during school hours," says Marie Kueny, a licensed school counselor in Wisconsin. "Therefore, the state has a responsibility to ensure the child's needs are being taken care of, including a satisfactory lunch. While a hard look at budgets would need to be had in order to eliminate debt, it is worth serious consideration."

The onus should not fall on parents—who are already paying taxes that fund public schools in the first place—to shell out more money for lunches. And it definitely shouldn't be the responsibility of other students to fundraise for their debt-ridden peers. The clearest, most straightforward solution is eliminating school lunch debt entirely.

The first step? Expand the National School Lunch Program and remove the household income requirement, which can often serve as a barrier to entry to begin with. All students would be automatically enrolled in the program, regardless of their socioeconomic status. If this sounds like a dream world, aspects of this approach are already in place.

"Schools designated as Title 1 schools due to the large number of low-income households are able to provide free lunch to every student," says Kueny. "After working in one of these schools for several years, I could see the positive difference it made for students. They were equal and did not have to have adult worries of debt on their minds when it came to lunch. The closer we can get to this model of equality, the better."

In a country as wealthy and resourceful as the United States, all families deserve the peace of mind that comes from knowing their kids won't be left starving or shamed at school. And students shouldn't be punished—however inadvertently—for their family's financial circumstances.