Budget & Finance

Student Lunch Debt Is Expected to Rise. TikTokers to the Rescue?

By Alyson Klein & Hayley Hardison — December 02, 2022 3 min read
Young boy in a school lunchroom cafeteria line and choosing a slice of pizza to put on his tray which includes an apple.
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Mount Vernon Community School in Virginia carried nearly $1,700 in school lunch debt—until a TikToker stepped in.

Sarah Stusek, a local film director with more than 88,000 followers on the video platform, recorded herself offering to wipe out the entire balance in one fell swoop, out of her own pocket. And she did just that.

That turned out to be just the beginning. Inspired, her followers flooded her with more than $3,000 in donations and offered suggestions of other schools to help. One person even sent a check for $1,700, she said.

Stusek, who has already used the donations to pay off debt at two other schools, plans to keep the project going for as long as she can. But she knows it will only make a small dent in the problem of reimbursing schools for meals given free to students who would have otherwise gone without lunch. (It is the policy of Alexandria City schools to provide lunch to all students regardless of their ability to pay.)

At least one other TikToker has taken up the lunch debt cause.

Stusek was moved to pay off lunch debt when she stumbled across a Twitter thread about how to help people in your community—for example, by covering rent for neighbors in danger of eviction. One commenter suggested paying off lunch debt at a local school could also be a good way to contribute.

Before that, “I had no idea that so many people needed help. Or that [lunch debt] was even a thing,” Stusek said in an interview.

One unexpected snag: Paying off the debt can be a logistical challenge. Stusek joked that she “can’t get ahold of the lunch lady because she’s busy making the lunches.” In reality, she’s found that “the cafeteria is responsible for the payment or [the school] has a third party that deals with the account. And it’s really hard to hear back from those people.”

That’s left her in holding pattern at times. Once she’s told a school she will pay off its lunch debt, she wants to find out how much kids owe before moving on to another school.

What’s more, Stusek typically has had to come into a school and pay by check or money order. “If I can’t pay with a credit card, how are parents that have a million other things going on gonna be able to pay easily?” she said.

Though Stusek is getting a lot of positive feedback online for her efforts, she realizes that any type of fundraiser—whether it is by the local PTA or TikTokers—won’t be nearly enough to overcome the national problem of child hunger, or lunch debt, which is expected to balloon this school year.

Before the pandemic, over 75 percent of school districts had student lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. The median district debt was $3,400, according to a 2019 SNA survey of districts, a big jump from $2,000, the median in a similar survey conducted in 2014.

At the height of the pandemic, the federal government temporarily made all lunch free to all students, regardless of income. That program ended earlier this year, however.

Low-income families still qualify for free or reduced price school meals. But parents and caregivers may be reluctant to ask for help, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for SNA. What’s more, undocumented immigrants may be uncomfortable filling out the application for the program, which requires social security numbers.

“That’s definitely a barrier,” Pratt-Heavner said.

Some states now offer universal free school meals

SNA has lobbied Congress to make school meals free for all kids. Although a bill has been introduced in the Senate, its prospects are murky.

Colorado recently joined California and Maine as the three states with permanent programs offering all students free school meals. Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have committed to keeping universal free meals in place through this school year.

Ultimately, it is policymakers, not TikTokers, who will be able to help ensure students are fed, Sustek said. “Lawmakers [should] do whatever they can to make sure students have their basic needs met,” she said, urging educators and others to turn up the pressure on Congress and states to act.

Like, say, on TikTok.

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