Federal lawmakers seek to end lunch debt

A new bill would direct the USDA to pay off all existing meal debt owed to schools.
Students taking fruit in the cafeteria
A new bill would eliminate meal debt for students throughout the country. | Photo: Shutterstock

A new federal bill would eliminate student lunch debt throughout the country.

Introduced by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the School Lunch Debt Cancelation Act would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to pay off all student meal debt owed to schools.

“No child in Rhode Island – or anywhere in America – should be penalized for not being able to afford school lunch. It’s that simple,” Whitehouse said in a statement.  “Our legislation will eliminate lunch debt in schools, supporting every child’s access to a healthy meal and positioning them for long-term success.”

Over 30 million children in the U.S. can’t afford meals at school, and the national public school meal debt is $262 million annually, according to a press release published by the senators.

Meal debt has become a growing issue since the expiration of the USDA pandemic-era waivers that allowed schools throughout the country to feed all students for free.

In a study released by the School Nutrition Association earlier this year, more than 65% of school nutrition operators reported that meal debt is a significant obstacle for their district. In addition, a separate survey published by Hunger Solution New York (HSNY) revealed that meal debt was on the rise at New York schools following the expiration of the waivers.

School nutrition operators and the School Nutrition Association continue to push for free meals for all students to eliminate meal debt, and several states have enacted legislation to provide meals at no cost to all students.

The USDA this week took steps to increase free school meal access by expanding the number of schools that qualify for the Community Eligibility Program (CEP).



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