Students eat lunch at Palmer Lake Elementary School on February 28, 2022 in Monument, Colorado.

Students eat lunch at Palmer Lake Elementary School on February 28, 2022 in Monument, Colorado.

(Photo: Chet Strange for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Soaring School Lunch Debt Shows Need for Universal Free Meals

"Access to good nutrition should not depend on where a child lives or their family finances!" said one group.

Congress initially responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by enabling U.S. public schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all 50 million children, but Republicans blocked a continuation of the program last summer—and now, districts and kids are suffering.

Halfway through the academic year, the nonprofit School Nutrition Association (SNA) on Wednesday released the results of a November survey that shows school meal programs are struggling with increasing costs, staff and menu item shortages, and unpaid charges.

"Congress has an opportunity to protect this critical lifeline."

Last June, Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act, bipartisan compromise legislation that increased the federal reimbursement rates for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) by 40 cents and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) by 15 cents for the 2022-23 school year.

However, only around a quarter of the 1,230 districts that responded to SNA's survey said those levels are sufficient, and 99.2% of them have moderate or serious concern about the raised rates expiring.

Additionally, a majority of districts that charge for meals said that the loss of the federal pandemic waiver enabling them to feed all students led to a rise in unpaid meal debt (96.3%), complaints and concerns from families (86.8%), administrative burden (86.5%), and stigma for low-income students (66.8%).

Over two-thirds of the districts reported unpaid meal debt collectively totaling $19.2 million. By district, debt ranged from just $15 to $1.7 million, but the median was $5,164.

A new position paper outlines SNA's primary recommendations:

  • Make permanent the Keep Kids Fed Act reimbursement rates;
  • Expand NSLP/SBP to offer healthy school meals for all students at no charge;
  • Ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains current nutrition standards; and
  • Reduce administrative and regulatory burdens.

"School meal programs are at a tipping point as rising costs, persistent supply chain issues, and labor shortages jeopardize their long-term sustainability," said SNA president Lori Adkins. "Congress has an opportunity to protect this critical lifeline by making reimbursement increases permanent and allowing us to offer free meals to ensure all students are nourished during the school day."

SNA is far from alone in demanding congressional action—though the dynamic on Capitol Hill is even more complicated now than it was last summer, since a divided Republican Party took narrow control of the U.S. House of Representatives last week.

"We are experiencing cost increases in food, supplies, and labor like we have never seen before, and the meal reimbursement rate is not sufficient to cover the costs," Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a nonprofit created by school food service professionals, told The Washington Post, which reported on the SNA survey.

"We are witnessing large negative balances in schools since free meals have been discontinued," Wilson added, noting that some districts have started giving children with certain levels of debt alternate, lesser meals.

Highlighting that school meal policies vary by state and district, Wilson's organization tweeted Wednesday that "access to good nutrition should not depend on where a child lives or their family finances!"

As USA Today—which also reported on SNA's survey Wednesday—detailed:

After pandemic-era waivers granting universal schools meal expired at the start of the school year, some states effectively extended them this school year, including Massachusetts, Nevada, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.

California, Maine, and now Colorado are the only states with laws ensuring permanent universal meal programs for all children, regardless of parents' income.

A few districts, including Chicago and New York City, also offer free meals to kids.

However, Donna Martin, nutrition director for the Burke County school district in Georgia, warned the Post that "doing universal school meals state by state is way too piecemeal and will ultimately leave needy students out."

"School districts are incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in school meal debt that the school districts' budgets—not school nutrition—will eventually have to cover," Martin stressed. "This takes dollars away from teaching and learning."

Elliot Haspel, author of Crawling Behind: America's Child Care Crisis and How to Fix It, said in a series of tweets Wednesday that "I, too, dislike the state-by-state approach. HOWEVER, given the political makeup of Congress, I think every state that can needs to be passing universal school meals (at solid reimbursement rates) during the '23 legislative session."

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