Budget & Finance

Meal Debt Is a Growing Problem for School Districts, Survey Shows

By Arianna Prothero — January 11, 2023 2 min read
Image of students in the lunch line.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

See also

Photo of girl in school cafeteria.
E+ / Getty

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.


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
What is it About Math? Making Math Figure-Out-Able
Join Pam Harris for an engaging session challenging how we approach math, resulting in real world math that is “figure-out-able” for anyone.
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Budget & Finance Most Districts Say They Don't Need More Time to Spend ESSER Dollars
Only 13 percent of districts surveyed by ASBO International said they plan to seek approval to spend the federal aid past the deadline.
2 min read
Roll of dollar banknotes with colored pencils on the shelf.
iStock/Getty Images
Budget & Finance 2023 in School Finance: Legal Fights, School Choice Debates, Persistent Inequities
Highlights of the year in school finance coverage include school funding lawsuits, private school choice legislation, and the looming financial storms brewing.
6 min read
Conceptual illustration of business people, a roll of paper, and the people using computers, a magnifying glass and telescope with the year 2023 as a shadow below them.
Liz Yap/Education Week and iStock/ Getty.
Budget & Finance Bus Contracts: The Pros and Cons for School Districts Outsourcing Transportation
Districts see more predictable costs and get valuable expertise, but high costs send some back to an in-house model.
1 min read
Buses parked covered with snow
Budget & Finance From Our Research Center When ESSER Funds Are Gone, Here's Where Districts May Turn to Fill Gaps
Districts will look to a range of funding sources to cover the services they've paid for in recent years with a surge of federal money.
4 min read
tight crop of sand running through an hour glass with a blurred photo of Benjamin Franklin in the background