The Problem of School Lunch Debt

December 18, 2023 by Rachel Danner

Senate Democrats have recently introduced a new bill directing the Secretary of Agriculture to “cancel and eliminate all debts” associated with school breakfast and lunch programs.[1] The Act, titled the “School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act of 2023,” was sponsored by Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, along with Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Peter Welch of Vermont.[2] “School lunch debt,” explained Fetterman in a recent tweet, “is a term so absurd that it shouldn’t even exist.”[3] But exist it does: estimates of the total national public school meal debt top 260 million dollars a year.[4] When students are in “debt,” they are often subject to so-called “cheese-sandwich policies,” which require that a child with an outstanding balance be served a cold, basic meal as a substitute for the normal lunch offering.[5] How did we get here?

In 1946, President Harry Truman signed into law the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which established what is now called the National School Lunch Program (“NSLP”).[6] The NSLP reimburses states for the provision of free and low-cost meals to qualifying students.[7] In its first year, around 7 million children participated in the NSLP.[8] In 2016, it was over 30 million.[9] The program was initially justified on broader grounds than the moral impulse to feed hungry children. In the wake of World War Two, senators tried to convince their colleagues to increase existing spending on school lunches by citing to a report of the Selective Service Board about otherwise draft-eligible men who were turned down because of malnutrition.[10] Senator Richard Russell, after whom the Act was ultimately named, was also interested in counteracting the food surplus and increasing the demand for agricultural commodities.[11] The bill faced opposition as well. Critics were skeptical as to whether it would actually address the food surplus and concerned that it was too expensive a project for the federal government to take on.[12] Nevertheless, in 1946, the NSLP was born.

The NSLP is administered federally by the Food and Nutrition Service (“FNS”), a division of the Department of Agriculture (“USDA”).[13] State agencies operate the program via agreements with school food authorities.[14] All lunches provided by the NSLP have to meet nutrition standards set by the FNS, and schools may only serve free or reduced price lunches to children who qualify for the program.[15] Qualification is available either categorically (i.e. through participation in SNAP) or based on the child’s household income and family size.[16] Currently, children whose families have incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for free lunch, and children whose families have incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for reduced-price lunch (which costs no more than 40 cents).[17] The current federal poverty level for a family of four is $30,000.[18] So families who make more than $39,000 are ineligible for free lunch, and families who make more than $55,000 must pay full price.

Unfortunately, the eligibility guidelines leave many children in an impossible spot: their parents make more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, but not enough to consistently afford full or reduced-price meals. This is how school lunch debt is born. The consequences of such debt include “acute psychological impacts” on kids who may already be struggling: indebted children face stigma and bullying from their peers.[19] Furthermore, the “cheese-sandwich policies” in place at certain schools mean that until the debt is paid off, children receive “cold and less nutritious meal[s], like a cheese or peanut butter sandwich.”[20] These policies are not only humiliating and unnecessarily cruel, but for children living just above the poverty line, they also mean that access to perhaps the only nutritious food they will see all day is cut off.[21] This cannot be the best possible solution.

The USDA recently published a final rule expanding access to what’s called the Community Eligibility Provision (“CEP”), which allows schools to offer free meals to all students, if a certain percentage of their student body are eligible for the NSLP.[22] Previously, CEP was available only to schools where 40% of the students met the eligibility criteria. [23] The new final rule lowers that threshold to 25%, meaning that more schools can participate.[24] The CEP was authorized by the Healthy-Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 and has resulted in numerous benefits for participating schools.[25] In the final rule expanding the CEP, the USDA cited research showing that when schools participate students’ diet and academic performance improved while incidents of social stigma due to receiving free lunch went down.[26] In fact, the research demonstrated that “CEP exposure is associated with an almost five percent decline in households classified as food insecure.”[27] And of course, participation in the CEP “eliminates unpaid meal debt in schools.”[28] However, although the recent final rule lowered the threshold community eligibility, many schools still do not qualify.[29] Even among qualifying schools, many choose not to participate because the federal government does not cover the entirety of the additional cost of the expanded program.[30]

During COVID-19, NSLP eligibility was expanded to every public-school kid in the country.[31] However, the expansion ended in June 2022.[32] Earlier this year, the Senate and House Democrats, along with Bernie Sanders (Independent), introduced legislation that would “offer[] free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all students, preschool through high school, regardless of income.”[33] Proponents of the bill, the Universal School Meal Programs Act of 2023, justified it on the grounds that it would “provide[] a permanent solution to end child hunger in schools … eliminate[] all school meal debt, and strengthen[] local economies by incentivizing local food procurement.”[34] Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the coauthors of the bill, also stated that “[n]early 75% of Americans support permanent universal school meals.”[35] And yet, the likelihood that the proposed Act will become law seems slim.

In light of the lack of federal action to address the issue, eight states have established versions of a universal school meal program for schools participating in the NSLP.[36] Other states have eliminated the reduced-price lunch category and made meals free for any student with a family income of under 185 percent of the federal poverty level.[37] However, the majority of states have no such expanded program, leaving millions of children without consistent access to school meals. By resolving meal debt without expanding access, The School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act would not solve all the problems associated with the provision of school meals.  It does not go far enough in making sure that all children can access nutritious food. But it would be a good start.


[1] School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act of 2023, S. 2876, 118th Cong. (2023),

[2] Cecelia Nowell, ‘Stop penalizing hunger’: the push to cancel US school lunch debt, The Guardian (Oct. 6, 2023),

[3] Senator John Fetterman (@SenFettermanPA), Twitter (Sept. 26, 2023, 10:00 AM),

[4] Melanie Hanson, School Lunch Debt Statistics, Education Data Initiative (Jul 8. 2023),

[5] Universal School Meals Policy Brief, First Focus Campaign for Child. (2023),

[6] National School Lunch Act, ch. 281, 60 Stat. 230 (1946).

[7] U. S. Dep’t of Agric., The National School Lunch Program, (2017),

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] 90 Cong. Rec. 3919 (1944) (statement of Sen. William Langer).

[11] James Gay, Richard B. Russell and National School Lunch Program, 80 Ga. Hist. Q. 858, 861 (Winter 1996); see also 90 Cong. Rec. 3846 (1944) (statement of Sen. Richard Russel).

[12] See 79 Cong. Rec. 1451 (1935) (comment of Mr. Arends).

[13] U. S. Dep’t of Agric., The National School Lunch Program, (2017),

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Annual Update of HHS Poverty Guidelines, 88 Fed. Reg. 3424 (Jan. 19, 2023). Note that the guidelines differ in Alaska and Hawaii.

[19] Universal School Meals Policy Brief, First Focus Campaign for Child. (2023),

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] See 7 C.F.R. § 245 (2023).

[23] Child Nutrition Programs: Community Eligibility Provision Increasing Options for Schools, 88 Fed. Reg. 65778 (Sept. 26, 2023).

[24] Id.

[25] Child Nutrition Programs: Community Eligibility Provision Increasing Options for Schools, 88 Fed. Reg. 65778 (Sept. 26, 2023).

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] See id.; see also Juliana Cohen et al., Implementation of Universal School Meals during COVID-19 and beyond: Challenges and Benefits for School Meals Programs in Maine, 14 Nutrients 4031 (2022).

[30] Id.

[31] Emily Katz & Hayleigh Rockenback, New State and Federal Policies Expand Access to Free School Meals, National Conference of State Legislatures, (Jul. 27, 2023),

[32] NEWS: Sanders, Omar, Gillibrand, Heinrich, McGovern, Moore and Colleagues in House and Senate Seek to Permanently End Child Hunger in Schools, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (May 11, 2023),

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Emily Katz & Hayleigh Rockenback, New State and Federal Policies Expand Access to Free School Meals, National Conference of State Legislatures, (Jul. 27, 2023),

[37] Id.