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Schools face backlash for "shaming" students over lunch debt

Illustration of a school lunch tray full of food in a prison cell
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Schools across the country are cracking down on school lunch debt, and some are getting public and political backlash for "shaming" low-income students who haven't paid their lunch tabs with tactics such as threatening to put them and their siblings in foster care and using collection agencies.

Why it matters: Children from low-income families can qualify for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch at their schools, which receive federal funds for the meals served. As national demographics shift and budgets are stretched, some school districts are seeing an influx of eligible students, creating enrollment delays, errors and negative balances.

By the numbers: 75% of school districts surveyed nationwide reported unpaid student-meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, according to a 2018 survey by the School Nutrition Association.

  • The survey of 1,550 school districts found debt at 1 school as high as $865,000, and a median debt amount of $2,500 across all schools, ABC News reports.

The impact: Many schools say they can no longer afford to wipe school lunch debts clean. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began requiring school districts in 2017 to have policies concerning student lunch debt, but did not specify how districts should recover those funds.

  • Though USDA spends more than $22 billion a year on child nutrition programs, schools are prohibited from using federal funds to pay off meal debt.

What's happening: USDA found that, in the 2011-2012 school year, nearly half of all school districts took actions such as billing the parents, using a collection agency, serving alternative meals, or administrative actions such as withholding grades, to recoup funds.

  • One of Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts sent letters in July to parents threatening to call child services for an aggregate debt of $22,000 owed for school cafeteria food, Vice News reports.
  • A New Jersey school district is exploring whether to strictly enforce their policy of denying food to students who are more than $20 in lunch debt, NBC News reports.
  • A Rhode Island school district hired a collection agency to get parents to pay, USA Today reports.
  • A different Rhode Island school district refused donations raised by community members to pay off the debt, Newsweek reports, even though 72% of balances are from students who are not enrolled in the national school lunch or breakfast program.
  • An Alabama school stamped a child with "I need lunch money," as a notice to parents that the account is running low, AL.com reports.
  • In Minnesota, 1 high school attempted to prevent students from attending their graduation ceremony if they had lunch debt, the Star Tribune reports.
  • In a Cleveland school, a child with pending enrollment had his "birthday" lunch taken away for owing $9. The school changed the policy after an uproar.

What to watch: USDA proposed eliminating access to food stamps for about 3 million Americans within its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That would include cutting off access to free meals at school for an estimated 500,000 low-income children, per NBC News.

What to watch: Some states, including New Mexico and California, have banned stigmatizing tactics, and House Democrats introduced the "No Shame at School Act" in June.

Go deeper: Food bought from American farmers to offset trade war pain will go to school cafeterias