Budget & Finance

6 Ways Districts Can Tackle Meal Debt—and Some Pros and Cons

By Mark Lieberman — January 09, 2023 3 min read
Photo of girl in school cafeteria.
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School meal debt has been surging this school year, placing burdens on families and the districts charged with holding them financially accountable.

All students, regardless of income, ate free of charge in schools nationwide during the first two years of the pandemic. That unprecedented policy from Congress ran out in September.

Three states—California, Colorado, and Maine—have permanently picked up where the federal government left off. Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont are keeping universal meals free at least through this school year.

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Kejuan Turner, 8, eats a burger from a free bagged lunch provided by the Jefferson County School District on the back of his mother's truck with his brother, Kendrell, 9, outside their home in Fayette, Miss.
Kejuan Turner, 8, eats a burger from a free bagged lunch provided by the Jefferson County school district on the back of his mother's truck with his brother, Kendrell, 9, outside their home in Fayette, Miss., in March.
Leah Willingham/AP

But the rest have returned to the pre-pandemic status quo—and some even raised fees for students to account for the rising costs of food production, preparation, and transportation.

Millions of students each year collectively rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in school meal debt, including children who are ineligible for federally subsidized school meals but may still not be able to afford daily school meals.

Meal debt is painful for those who accrue it and those who impose it. Hiring debt collectors can be time-consuming and can put families in uncomfortable situations, and it’s illegal for districts in several states, including California and South Carolina.

Here are six other ways districts can handle a debt crisis that appears unlikely to abate anytime soon.

1. Offering ‘alternative meals’ to students with outstanding debt

How It Works: Students without meal debt get full access to the daily food offerings, while students with meal debt get a smaller, bare-minimum alternative (like a cheese sandwich and a drink) that’s cheaper to produce.

  • PRO ✔️

    Students still get to eat on the district’s dime, and the district saves resources and avoids falling deeper into debt. The Guilford County schools in North Carolina, where 5,700 of the district’s 70,000 students had accumulated more than $111,000 in meal debt by last December, is taking this approach.

    “Nutrition is still a priority, and we want it to look like a full tray of food, which it will be, and something that they would like,” Travis Fisher, the district’s executive director of student nutrition, said during a December school board meeting.

    CON ❌

    This practice risks fomenting the phenomenon known as “lunch shaming,” which is illegal in a growing number of states. Schools in those states are prohibited from penalizing or embarrassing students who are unable to pay for school meals. Students who receive “alternative meals” may endure jeers from peers who get more robust meals. And these smaller meals may not be as nutritious or filling.

    The 12,500-student Ankenny district in Iowa tried this approach in the mid-2010s, giving kids with outstanding meal debt a “sack lunch” instead of a hot meal. It didn’t sit well, said Scott Litchfield, the district’s nutrition director.

    “Money is not a kid problem, it’s an adult problem,” Litchfield said. “Let’s not take it out on the kids.”


2. Finding money in the district budget to forgive existing debt

How It Works: For some districts with extra money sitting in their general fund, eliminating families’ school meal obligations is a no-brainer.

  • PRO ✔️

    This decision creates goodwill between school administrators and parents. Last year, the 1,200-student Bristol Borough district in Pennsylvania used excess general fund dollars to forgive $21,000 in debt, relieving families of debt burdens that had accumulated for several years.

    CON ❌

    Districts with tighter financial margins might find this approach simply isn’t possible—widening inequities between well- and poorly-resourced districts. Forgiving existing debt doesn’t prevent debt from continuing to build up. In Bristol Borough, for instance, students began accumulating debt once again this school year.


3. Creating a community donation fund managed by the district

How It Works: In the Ankenny school district, anytime a student’s meal debt exceeds $50, a social worker or other district employee will contact the family.

“Some people say, ‘No, I can pay next week and take care of it,’” Litchfield said. “Some people say, ‘I really need help.’ ”

That help comes with the district’s Filling Up Every Learner program. The district solicits small donations from community members, and then uses the funds to pay for any meals students purchase after accruing $50 in debt.

“Based on meal prices, they could accrue $300, $400 in debt, but they would only be responsible for $50,” Litchfield said.

  • PRO ✔️

    Families know that they won’t be on the hook for hundreds of dollars if their income consistently doesn’t permit them to pay for their students to eat at school.

    CON ❌

    Managing this fund takes effort and relies on the generosity of the community. Litchfield said his district’s residents have been supportive, but it might be harder to garner support depending on the place.


4. Soliciting donations to wipe out families’ burdens

How It Works: Sometimes a wealthy benefactor or a diligent community organization is all a district needs to solve its school meal debt crisis in one fell swoop. This benefactor could be, as in recently publicized instances, a statewide advocacy group, a local foundation, a Masonic group, a local family, a professional athlete, a small business, an enterprising child, a law firm, a church, a former superintendent, or even a TikTok user.

  • PRO ✔️

    The school district doesn’t have to lift a finger to help ease the strain on its families’ wallets.

    CON ❌

    There’s no guarantee a benefactor will emerge, nor that their act of generosity will carry over into future years.


5. Selling their debt

How It Works: This relatively new and novel approach would involve districts partnering with the Debt Collective, a nationwide nonprofit organization that advocates for people dealing with student debt, medical debt, school meal debt, and more.

The Debt Collective is in the early stages of proposing to buy districts’ debt on the secondary market at a fraction of the cost of the total amount, then erase it so that families are no longer on the hook.

The idea might seem far-fetched, but it’s already played out elsewhere. The city council of Toledo, Ohio, last November paid $1.6 million to forgive more than $200 million worth of medical debt held by roughly 40,000 people. The local government in Cook County, Ill., took the same approach last summer, investing $12 million in federal funds to give $1 billion in medical debt. Both of these local governments partnered with the nonprofit organization RIP Medical Debt, which was recently featured on comedian John Oliver’s HBO talk show.

  • PRO ✔️

    Districts that receive a proposal like this might be more motivated to find other, quicker solutions to the problem.

    Bristol Borough’s decision to forgive its existing meal debt came after Debt Collective members contacted the district proposing the secondary market scheme, said Jason Wozniak, a professor at West Chester University and an organizer with Debt Collective.

    “In the end we didn’t even have to bargain with them at all,” Wozniak said. “They just decided they were going to cancel it.”

    CON ❌

    The idea is somewhat convoluted and might not always be met with enthusiasm. Wozniak said some Debt Collective members received a hostile reception from some parents when they presented a similar idea at a different school board meeting, though the nature of their objections wasn’t clear.


6. Advocating for legislation that eliminates future meal debt

How It Works: Universal free school meal policies circumvent the meal debt problem altogether. Six states already have them in place at least through the end of the year, and talks are ongoing for universal free school meals in more than a dozen other states.

  • PRO ✔️

    It’s a more permanent solution than any debt forgiveness or cancellation plan, which only deals with existing debt, not future debt. It’s also a broadly popular policy with support across party lines, and even from public figures like celebrity chef Rachael Ray.

    CON ❌

    Enacting legislation takes time, and student meals can’t wait.

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