Americans Are Coming Together to Pay Off School Lunch Debts

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For many of us, a $2 or $3 lunch isn’t much of an imposition. But even with reduced-price lunch programs at schools, those prices can still feel like a burden to struggling families. And when parents fall behind on cafeteria debts, students can suffer. Some districts offer kids with high balances alternate meals, and it was only recently that New Mexico outlawed the practice of so-called “lunch-shaming”—that is, calling out those students who owe the school money, or even making them work in the cafeteria to pay off their debts.

You may not be able to make school lunches permanently affordable for these families, but you can help in a smaller way: by helping pay off overdue school lunch balances in a district near you. In December 2016, New York City-based writer Ashley C. Ford managed to raise thousands of dollars with a single tweet that urged people to donate the cost of overdue lunch balances to school districts near them. As the Associated Press reports, two months later, people had clearly run with the suggestion. In Minnesota, donors had raised $100,000 to pay off lunch debts in Minneapolis schools and $28,000 for schools in St. Paul’s. Schools across the country received thousands of dollars from good Samaritans to pay off kids’ lunch debts.

Similar crowdfunding efforts are still ongoing. In the Houston-area Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, volunteers are trying to raise $15,500 to pay off student lunch debts. In Austin, an online fundraising campaign collected more than $20,000, enough to pay off all lunch debts in the city’s public schools—and then some. The Loudoun Education Foundation in Ashburn, Virginia is planning to raise $13,000 to cover lunch debts at the county’s public schools.

Those surely won’t be the last fundraisers, because student lunch debt is a strikingly common issue. Around 75 percent of the 1000 schools in one survey from the School Nutrition Association had unpaid lunch debt at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, costs the school usually has to cover with its own budget [PDF]. Some critics of school lunch programs suggest that we shouldn’t be charging kids at all—every student should get a meal, no matter how much money they do or do not have.

That’s already a reality in some places. In New York City, a pilot program began offering free lunch to all students at certain public middle schools, regardless of their financial situation, starting in 2014. Other cities, like Chicago, Dallas, and Boston already offer universal free lunch to all public school students. Advocates argue that these universal programs ensure that all students are adequately fed and eliminate the stigma of receiving a free or reduced-priced meal.

Many school districts can’t afford to offer free lunches to all students, though, meaning that donations can make a huge difference. Students don’t have to worry about being shamed about not having enough money, and school districts can spend the money that would otherwise go to covering those balances at the end of the year on something else.