The existence of school meal debt is an abomination. Our continued practice of punishing children and forcing them into debt so that they can avoid going hungry should make us question the way we structure our society. School meal debt compounds shame, stigma, and creates barriers for students who are simply trying to get through a full day of learning with a full stomach. A well-fed body and mind is essential for students to focus, behave, and learn at school.
When a parent, family member, or caregiver helps to get their student to school, they know students will be provided a desk, textbooks, and other supplies; however, when it comes to school meals, we expect kids to fend for themselves. We make them come to school, but do not provide them with basic nutrition to help them get through the day. Instead, what we provide is a nightmarish means-tested, bureaucratic system taking lunch out of students’ hands. When it comes to school meals, we have a system that restricts access to a necessary resource such as food based on a person’s perceived ability to pay, which means that many who cannot afford lunch but do not qualify for free lunch go hungry or are given a lesser-quality meal. In Pennsylvania, over 87,000 students are food insecure but do not qualify for free/reduced lunch.
Students shouldn’t be worrying about whether a parent, family member, or caregiver filled out the correct paperwork for a school meal. Nor should they be wondering whether there is enough money in their account. They should be worrying about their own well-being, learning, making friends, and that they eat a nutritious meal! The means-tested system is stressing kids out by making them worry about finances when they should be carefree kids just enjoying a hot meal at school. If you aren’t aware, this school year a family of four that makes under $36,075 qualifies for free school meals. Those who make up to $51,338 qualify for reduced meals. What that means to families across the state is that if you make above those numbers you don’t qualify, or if your family one year makes $40,000 then the next goes down to $35,000 and you don’t fill out another round of paperwork your child will still have to pay for lunch.
The Pennsylvania Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition came together in 2021, originally as the Bucks Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition, with the mission to eliminate school meal debt, ensure free school meals for all students, and build power amongst debtors! Through our work, we eventually won over $20,000 in school meal debt cancellation in a school district in Bucks County. This victory showed others in Bucks County and across the Commonwealth that school meal debt cancellation is possible and we should demand that other school districts do the same. This powerful coalition with members from the PA Debt Collective, BuxMont DSA, and Lower Bucks for Change decided to expand statewide by reaching out to teachers, parents, political leaders, and interested parties across Pennsylvania to join us in advocating for legislation to cancel existing lunch debt and institute universal school meals.
Since Congress refused to continue funding universal school meals in June 2022, many states across the country, including California, Colorado, Maine, and Minnesota, have permanently instituted universal school meals. Meanwhile, here in Pennsylvania, former Governor Wolf only implemented free breakfast for all students through the end of this school year, and our current Governor Josh Shapiro has called to extend that program; however, we must demand that Governor Shapiro and the legislature make this program permanent and include free lunch and the elimination of all current school meal debt. Already we see and hear of the growing debt, which K-12 students are holding.
Recently, we brought together educators, staff, students, parents, elected officials, school administrators, advocates, and community leaders for our PA Lunch Debt Assembly in order to hear their testimonies about school lunch debt. We heard from people all across the state about how they’ve been deeply impacted by the cruel and arbitrary meal debt system that currently exists and how many students fall through the cracks because of unnecessary means testing and other barriers. At the Debt Assembly, we also heard from State Senator Lindsey Williams who has introduced Senate Bill 180 which would not only provide universal school meals in Pennsylvania, but would also cancel every penny of existing school meal debt.
Eliminating school meal debt and offering free universal school meals is possible. We are on the cusp of something big and have the ability to institute real changes that will directly help millions of kids in Pennsylvania. We can do this, but need your help. We need your stories, voices, and contributions to this movement. If you are dealing with or have dealt with school lunch debt, qualified for free/reduced school meals, or have seen the impacts of lunch debt on students within our K-12 schools, consider joining the Pennsylvania Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition. Whether you are an individual or a part of an organization that wants to get involved to ensure school meals are provided to every student at no cost and school meal debt is canceled once and for all, we would love to have you as part of our coalition. Reach out at nolunchdebt(at)gmail.com and join our coalition!