Food nutrition directors in schools have been raising the alarm for months now: since the federal government stopped paying for all students to eat for free, meal debt has been rising at a rapid pace.
Anecdotally, several districts across the country have reported levels of meal debt in the first few months of this school year that are exceeding what typically accrues in the entirety of a normal school year.
Now, there are some concrete numbers and the scope of that debt is taking shape, based on a newly released survey of school nutrition directors in 1,230 districts.
The School Nutrition Association, which represents food service directors across the country, surveys its members annually.
While it’s difficult to compare this year’s meal debt to previous years, it’s clear that school meal debt is a major challenge facing school districts and families, both of which are struggling with the rising costs of food. Among districts that do not offer free school meals districtwide, 96 percent of school nutrition directors said that meal debt has been a challenge this year, and 65 percent say it’s been a significant challenge, according to the survey.
The 847 school district nutrition directors who shared information about their students’ meal debt for the survey reported that, cumulatively, their districts had amassed $19 million in unpaid meal debts. If that is extrapolated to the more than 13,000 school districts nationwide, that figure becomes much larger.
Among districts that do not currently offer universal free meals, most survey respondents pointed to the federal government ending its pandemic era program that paid for all students to eat school meals for free, regardless of their families’ income levels. This has not only contributed to a rise in meal debt, its also led to an increase in complaints from families, more paperwork for administrators, and rising stigma for low-income students, according to survey respondents.
Meal debt continues to vary a lot from district to district, from a mere total of $15 to $1.7 million. The median among all districts is $5,164.
With the federal government no longer paying for all students to eat school meals for free, some states have picked up that tab. Colorado voters passed a ballot initiative to make school meals free to all students. California and Maine have also created permanent programs to provide universal free meals.
At least three other states—including Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont—have committed to paying for all students’ school meals through this school year.
Inflation, supply chain problems, and labor shortages are big problems too
While student meal debt is a major concern for school nutrition directors, nearly all of them—99.8 percent—said that increasing costs of food and supplies is the top challenge they are facing.
School meal programs operate in their own little fiscal bubble. They are supposed to be self-sustaining, according to SNA, running on money from federal reimbursements and cafeteria sales. As a result, absorbing these rising costs can be tricky.
Other challenges that appeared during the pandemic continue to test food service directors, namely supply chain disruptions and staff shortages. Nearly 90 percent said that they have struggled to get menu items to meet current federal standards for school meals, and just over 90 percent said that they have had trouble hiring enough staff.