Food businesses unite to help tackle school meal debt this holiday season

As school districts struggle with accumulating meal debt once again, local food operators are helping out.
students in cafeteria
Photo: Shutterstock

Meal debt has returned to many school districts this year after the termination of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers that provided universal free school meals, and local food businesses are stepping in to help this holiday season.

Western Wyoming Beverages, a vending machine supplier based out of Rock Springs, Wyo., launched a fundraising campaign through Pepsi’s School Lunch Payoff program to raise proceeds to go towards meal debt at Sweetwater County School District #1 this month. In Casper, Wyo., Mexican restaurant Tacos Mexico teamed up with a local salon to donate 20% of profits earned during one day last month to help pay off meal debt at Natrona County School District, K2 Radio reports.

Across the country, Birdies Coffee and Treats in Blowing Rock, N.C., also raised $2,500 to go towards meal debt at nearby Watauga County Schools as part of a Giving Tuesday event, Watauga Democrat reports.

After the summer expiration of the waivers, some states worked to provide funding to continue offering free meals to all students for the current school year or permanently. For states that haven’t been able to provide funding for the meals, however, overdue lunch balances have become a challenge for school nutrition teams.

A recent survey polling 200 school nutrition directors in New York, for example, revealed that around half consider meal debt an issue this school year, and of those, 73% reported that their debt is accumulating at a higher rate compared to previous school years.

Meal debt, and the lunch shaming that often accompanies it, has caused many food industry leaders to push for legislation that would allow all school districts in the country to offer students free meals at school.