The Pennsylvania branch of the Debt Collective will host the “PA Lunch Debt Assembly: Discussing the Crisis, Working Towards Solutions” Thursday at 7 p.m. This online forum will allow students, parents, teachers, cafeteria workers, political leaders, or anyone else an opportunity to discuss and learn about the burdens created by student lunch debts.
Jason Wozniak, a professor within the Educational Foundations and Policy Studies Department at West Chester University, and an organizer at the Debt Collective, believes these are necessary conversations to fully comprehend the financial obligations connected with student nutrition programs and to find ways to eradicate the accumulating debts.
“We need breakfast. We need lunch. We need the debt that’s on the books canceled so people get a fresh start and never have to worry about it again,” said Wozniak. “So that’s a beautiful part of this, you can do this one time, and you also put in the three universal meals, and you know we never have to worry about lunch debt again in the state of Pennsylvania.”
Student lunch debt is a serious problem. In October 202, 87,000 Pennsylvania students had incurred close to $15 million dollars of financial liabilities related to K-12 school lunches, according to the Education Data Initiative.
During the COVID pandemic, schools were afforded the ability to provide free breakfast and lunch to students by way of the USDA Seamless Summer Option program that was coupled with a moratorium to halt lunch debt collections. Those safety nets have since expired and, once again, students are struggling with the ability to access and pay for food.
Pennsylvania does offer programs for reduced or free meals, however the income qualifications are skewed and out of touch with reality, not unlike Pennsylvania’s $7.25/hour minimum wage, and too many children who should qualify for assistance are excluded.
Worse, SNAP COVID emergency benefits have expired, prohibiting even more students from qualifying for discounted or free meals.
In 2022 the Bucks Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Debt Collective, organized and worked with the Bristol School District, resulting in the elimination of more than $20,000 of student lunch debt.
One of the organizers, Nick Marcil, was thrilled with the end result.
“People really have a voice and have power. We have the power to stop that and make sure that every single kid has school meals for free, as I think it should be … it’s just absurd. But it really is a great win,” Marcil WHYY’s Emily Rizzo.
Over the years, Pennsylvania has employed an on-again, off-again “lunch shaming” for students who struggle with food insecurity.
Prior to 2017, students with outstanding lunch bills of more than $25 were provided an alternative meal – usually a cheese sandwich – causing them to be stigmatized and embarrassed, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported. Another tool utilized by school districts was – and is – the employment of debt collectors.
The Pennsylvania School Code was amended to abolish the alternate meal method, but that provision was quietly undone in 2019. Alternative meals were once again permitted for students with more than $50 in lunch debt.
Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District made international news in 2019 when they issued hundreds of letters threatening parents that their children would be placed into foster care if outstanding lunch debts weren’t paid. The district was forced to retract the statement and issue an apology.
Bucks County school districts are not immune to this situation. In September 2022, right-wing radio personality Dom Giordano discussed student lunch debt on his program with Pennridge School Board Director Joan Cullen and while it was acknowledged that the debt is not the fault of the children, it was implied that some parents are “moochers” and simply don’t want to pay the food service bills.
Food insecurity and lunch debt have not gone unnoticed by Pennsylvania officials. In 2022, former Governor Tom Wolf announced that all students, regardless of their ability to pay, would be eligible for free breakfast meals.
Governor Josh Shapiro in his budget plan unveiled last week vowed to continue the free breakfast policy as well as provide free lunch for those currently eligible for discounted lunches.
Some politicians in Harrisburg would like to expand these food service provisions.
Senate Bill 180, recently introduced by Democratic State Senator Lindsey Williams (SD38), would provide free meals for all K-12 students and cancel all existing student lunch debt. To date, 21 of the state’s 22 Democratic senators have signed on to co-sponsor the legislation.
One state senate co-sponsor is Bucks County Democrat Steve Santarsiero (SD10). “It is critically important to the development and well-being of children that their nutrition needs are met,” State Senator Santarsiero said.
“The reality is there are families in our Commonwealth that can’t afford to provide the necessary meals. We can and should give every child the opportunity to learn and grow with a nutritious mid-day meal. That is what this bill does and that is why I’m a co-sponsor,” the Senator added.
Senate Bill 180 gives Wozniak and organizers of the Pennsylvania Debt Collective hope.
“Alone, our debts are a burden, but together they give us power and the only way we find out about each other is by talking to each other,” said Wozniak. “We need people of all types, of all professions, of all backgrounds, to come out and say, ‘hey look, I do have lunch debt, but we can get rid of this.’ As many people as we can get on the call the better.” Those interested in reserving a spot for the March 16 Zoom should visit the Pennsylvania Debt Collective Facebook page for additional details.