Lunch Debt tray graphic

School lunch debt is a growing problem in the U.S.

A heartwarming headline came out of Marietta, Georgia last week, as a wave of donations relieved struggling families from the burden of unpaid school lunch debts. While these donations are admirable, we can’t always rely on charity to fill policy gaps. Kids shouldn’t need to pay for lunch. The state should provide meals for free.

School lunch debt is a widespread and growing problem. As unemployment drops and wages rise, many families in Georgia are no longer eligible for free or discounted lunches, even as they still struggle to keep up with the costs.

The School Nutrition Association reports that three quarters of school districts surveyed had unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. The median amount of debt sat at $3,400, and fewer than half of the largest districts surveyed report any level of debt pay-down. Furthermore, 36.6% of districts surveyed reported an increase from 2017-2018 to 2018-2019 in the number of students who are not certified for free meals and do not have the funds to pay for lunches.

The growth of student lunch debt demonstrates a clear and pressing policy failure. Hunger harms students’ health as well as their ability to learn. Food insecurity has been associated with poor mental health outcomes. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that participation in the Department of Agriculture School Breakfast Program is associated with better grades and test scores, fewer absences and improved memory.

Since many children spend much of their lives at school, it is critical that they be well-fed and well-taken care of as they learn. Donations can help at a local level, but a wider policy response is needed. The charity Feeding America reports 20% of Georgia children were food insecure in 2017. For all those children to have access to debt-free meals at school, Georgia must step in to fill the gaps.

Other states are taking steps to ease the burden of school lunch debt, and Georgia should follow their example to resolve the problem. Last October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that prohibits public schools from restricting meal access to students with school lunch debt. In August, a law took effect in Maine that also allows students with debt to have access to full meals.

These laws, while a productive step forward, only address the symptoms of school lunch debt and not the debt itself. Lunch debt presents a problem for schools’ finances as well as childrens’ health, and schools that offer full meals to every student may suffer under the weight of growing unpaid debts.

To clear the problem of meal debt entirely, Georgia should step in and fully pay for the cost of school lunches, removing debt as an issue for students and school districts alike. An attempt to do this is already underway in Vermont, where State Sen. Debbie Ingram recently proposed a bill to provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school students. Should the bill pass into law, Vermont would become the first state to offer meals to students free at point of service.

Georgia should follow suit and enact universal school meal programs of their own, for the good of schoolchildren suffering from hunger and poor nutrition as well as districts saddled with the burden of unpaid debts.

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