Morally unacceptable: Student lunch debt

When children are sent to school, the expectation is that they will be cared for, fed and returned home safely. For the most part, this is true on a daily basis.

Regarding meals, though, there is a gray area. When students incur a lunch debt, they are punished by receiving a meal that is innutritious and unacceptable in getting them through the school day. 

Schools have options to prevent this issue, such as discounted or free lunches, but they are not without flaws.

In 2015, Candrice Jones, the mother of a seventh grader in Granite City, Illinois, submitted the necessary paperwork to secure free lunch for her son. Due to a processing error, the program only covered meals for one month and then ended for unclear reasons. This mistake caused her son to rack up nearly $1,000 in school lunch debt. 

After correcting the error, the program covered meals for the remainder of the school year, and Jones was told to make monthly payments to reduce the lunch debt her son had incurred. Her son, now a sophomore, is barred from attending school-sponsored events such as homecoming and is expected not to attend prom as a senior — even though he wasn’t punished by the school withholding full nutritious meals.

In Arizona, the student lunch debt crisis is extremely concerning. 

According to Education data statistics updated this year, there are over 69,000 children experiencing food insecurity — meaning they are unable to afford proper meals — despite being ineligible for reduced price or free lunch programs. That’s nearly 20% of K-12 students who attend public school in Arizona. 

Per child, the average yearly debt in the state’s public school system is $169.13.

If a child is left with a balance at the end of the school year, the school pays it off with outside funding and typically sees a deficit because of this. If students still have lunch debt at the end of high school, their participation in graduation could be limited

Lunch debt is a bigger problem than individual schools can handle themselves. Due to strict limitations on funding, school administrators are forced to hound parents or guardians for outstanding amounts. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS), the federal lunch program spends $13.6 billion annually on funding for running school cafeterias. The USDA prohibits the use of these funds to cover unpaid lunch debts, thus leading to “children being used as collateral,” as The Counter put it.

When students incur debt and aren't able to afford the hot meal, what happens? Typically, they are given an alternative meal, something along the lines of a squished, lifeless sandwich and some kind of fruit, although they may receive a carton of milk.

There are strict standards that schools are required to follow regarding nutrition in the meals they serve to students, and these alternative meals simply don’t meet the standards. 

Meals are not personally regulated to meet individual caloric needs or correct amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, fruits or vegetables depending on the size of the child; rather, they are portioned according to age range and average child size.

These sack lunches containing meals such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are only around 530 calories but, depending on activity, children ages 6-12 need between 1,600-2,200 calories. Kindergarten through eighth grade students are required to take a physical education class, as well as recess and activity during and between classes — these meals cannot sustain children during an active school day. 

According to the USDA, the first rule in the nutritional standards of school lunches is to offer fruits and vegetables as two separate food components. If a child is given a sack with a sandwich and an apple, there’s no possibility for this to be met. 

The sack hot meal in and of itself is demoralizing; as it’s handed to children, all their peers immediately know they are unable to afford a hot meal. 

In Arizona, State Senator Martin Quezada introduced legislation that looks to ban “school lunch shaming,” as he calls it. The bill would include restrictions on disciplinary treatment, such as withholding meals, or physical labor, such as doing dishes. Further, it would prohibit schools from serving alternative options to students with a debt, as well as requiring them to notify parents within the first 10 days, among other changes. 

In Flagstaff, circumstances are different. According to the Flagstaff Unified School District, in the 2021-22 school year all students are eligible for free lunch and breakfast, regardless of household income. Assuming this change is due to the pandemic and the economic hardships it imposed on families, it's an extremely positive and helpful development.

Typically, though, there are guidelines for those who do and don’t qualify for these programs. Most students who experience food insecurity fall outside these guidelines because their family slightly surpasses the income cut-off, yet still needs assistance to provide daily meals. 

Benefits.gov is a resource families can use to check the income amount that is necessary to meet the program requirements for Arizona public schools.

Looking to the future, citizens can hope legislation like the school lunch shaming bill will be implemented and that school lunch debt will be a worry of the past. Children should not be condemned for something they likely do not understand or control.

Withholding a nutritious meal from a student during an active school day as punishment for lunch debt is unethical, needs to officially be prohibited and is nearly child abuse.

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