school lunch debt

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) just announced a bold new policy — the elimination of school lunch debt and universal free school meals.

The policy rollout hasn’t yet been added to the “Issues” section of Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign website, but Sen. Sanders announced his intention to eliminate school lunch debt while quote-tweeting a widely shared story about a nine-year-old boy who used his allowance to pay off his classmates’ school lunch debt.

” ‘School lunch debt’ should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Sanders tweeted. “When we are in the White House, we are going to provide year-round, free universal school meals.”

There hasn’t yet been a comprehensive study adding up all the outstanding school lunch debt in the estimated 13,000+ public school districts in the United States. However, as New Food Economy’s Jessica Fu reported in April, school meal debt has been steadily rising in more than 1,500 public school districts across the country, by approximately $2,000 to $2,500 per district between 2016 and 2018.

Local news outlets report on surges in unpaid debt on a regular basis, from Redmond, Oregon, to Shawnee Mission, Kansas, to name some recent examples. In December of 2018, The Washington Post reported that K-12 students in the D.C. area, which comprises multiple school districts, owed a collective $500,000 in unpaid lunch balances. At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, Denver, Colorado’s school districts saw meal debt rise to $356,000 from $13,000 in 2016—more than a 2,600-percent increase.

Some districts have gone to extreme measures to address outstanding school meal debt. In December, one Rhode Island school district hired debt collection agency Transworld Systems to call parents to collect outstanding lunch debt, which the Cranston Public Schools District said was more than $45,000 at the time. Lunches in CPSD cost approximately $3.25 per student in middle and high schools, and approximately $2.50 for elementary school students.


Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.

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