Tens of thousands of public school students in the Washington, D.C., area owe nearly half a million dollars in "lunch debt," the Washington Post reports.
K-12 students who do not have enough money to pay for lunch in their school cafeterias are racking up debt to pay for food, with totals ranging from $20,000 in the Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia to $127,000 in D.C. Public Schools. According to a survey by the School Nutrition Association of fifteen hundred and fifty school districts, 75 percent of school districts nationwide have unpaid student meal debt, in what teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, and public policy experts describe as a hidden crisis.
While the National School Lunch Program, which was established in the 1940s, pays for free and reduced-price lunches for millions of low-income students, the mounting debt makes it clear that many students still can't afford to pay for lunch. To qualify for an in-school free lunch program, a family of four must make less than $32,630 a year (and less than $46,435 to qualify for reduced-price lunch programs) in all states except Alaska and Hawai'i, a requirement that puts children in high-cost regions like the District of Columbia at a disadvantage. According to the SNA, the families of many students with lunch debt earn slightly above $32,630 and do not qualify for free lunch programs, or they fail to complete the paperwork, which must be submitted annually. School officials told the Post that some immigrant families were afraid to return the free-lunch application after the Trump administration announced plans in September to make it harder for immigrants who receive public benefits to obtain permanent residency status.
Many districts in the region, including Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, have a policy to deny hot food to those who cannot pay and offer an "alternate meal," usually a cold cheese sandwich — a practice referred to as "lunch shaming" by anti-poverty advocates. Virginia outlawed the practice earlier this year; Montgomery County stopped serving alternate meals in November and had $80,000 in meal debt in 2018. And while D.C. Public Schools do not serve alternate meals, about a quarter of the schools in the district still charge students for lunch.
Not wanting students to go hungry, but not having adequate funds to cover their lunch debt, more than half of the school districts in the U.S. have begun to seek community donations to help pay the debts off, the School Nutrition Association reports. For instance, the Montgomery County Public Schools Educational Foundation is trying to raise $300,000 for its Dine With Dignity campaign to wipe out the district's lunch debt and is partnering with Starbucks to put information on its coffee cups telling customers how they can support the effort.
"A gentleman walked up to me in a Starbucks store to make a donation because he said when he grew up the alternate meal was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and to this day he can't eat one without feeling sad," said MCPS Educational Foundation executive director Yolanda Johnson Pruitt. "Kids are entitled to their dignity in the lunch line."