As a school district racks up $53K in meal debt, nutrition director believes there’s only one solution

The meal debt problem is in lawmakers’ hands, says Dan Ellnor of Jefferson County Public Schools. School districts across the country have amassed more than $19 million in unpaid meal fees, according to a recent School Nutrition Association survey.
A student holds a tray of food
The nutrition program at Jefferson County Public Schools is dealing with over $50,000 in meal debt this school year. / Photo: Shutterstock

This school year, the nutrition program at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Ky., is dealing with a hefty amount of debt. 

While most schools in the district offer universal free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision, nine schools must charge for meals and have already accumulated around $53,000 in meal debt—a number that is expected to only grow as the year continues. 

“We'll be under $100,000 [at the end of the school year],” says Assistant Director of Nutrition Dan Ellnor. “But it will continue to climb.”

It’s a problem that will only be solved if lawmakers act, Ellnor says.

The scope of the issue

JCPS is far from the only district suffering under the weight of overdue lunch fees.

After pandemic waivers that allowed schools to offer all students free meals ended, districts have resumed charging for food—and all of the administrative headaches that come with it, such as encouraging families to fill out the necessary paperwork for free and reduced-price meal eligibility, and finding fresh ways to garner funds when students are behind on payments.

Results of a School Nutrition Association survey released in January showed that 847 school districts have, as a group, accumulated more than $19 million in unpaid meal fees. In addition, more than 65% of survey respondents classified meal debt as a significant obstacle for their district.

School communities have even taken matters into their own hands, soliciting help through GoFundMe campaigns and social media posts. A Utah teacher’s TikTok video about meal debt at his district recently went viral, generating more than $30,000 in donations.

JCPS tries to manage its meal debt as best as it can without embarrassing students in the process, Ellnor says. It no longer serves alternative meals to students who have accumulated debt and instead tries communicating with families via robocalls and letters to recoup the lost funds.

“We try to remove the students from any knowledge of that as much as possible, so we're not encountering them at the POS,” says Ellnor.

If there is any remaining debt at the end of the year, the school board takes money out of the district’s general fund to cover the cost. 

It’s up to legislators

Ultimately, school meal debt won’t be addressed until lawmakers get serious about passing universal free meals legislation, Ellnor says. 

A flurry of universal free meals bills has been introduced since the pandemic, to mixed results. In Virginia, a bill that would have offered free school meals to all was killed late last month after it failed to pass a House subcommittee. Meanwhile, California and Maine have begun offering meals at no charge to students, and Colorado will start offering them in the fall.

Several other states are reviewing universal free meals bills this legislative session. (For more on this, hover over the map below.)

At the federal level, Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-Calif.) introduced a bill in December aiming to expand free school meal access, which has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Universal free meals also continue to find support among food industry leaders and anti-hunger advocates, who argue that they reduce the stigma faced by students dealing with food insecurity and help ensure students won’t be distracted by hunger while in class.

New York lawmakers recently gathered at the state capitol to ask that funding for universal free meals be included in the state’s fiscal 2024 budget, though the budget proposed by Gov. Kathy Hochul earlier this month stopped short of earmarking money for that purpose. (Nearly three-fourths of respondents to a recent survey of New York FSDs said they are racking up meal debt at a faster rate this school year than in previous years.)

It will be up to K-12 operators to call for change as well, Ellnor says, and highlight the cost savings and educational benefits that universal free meals bring. 

“For operators, we really just need to continue to advocate,” he says. “We need to work on the state level and the federal level so that everybody understands what the implications are, because the implications are either A, you're shaming a child that has no control over their finances, or B, you’re taking money out of the classroom to pay for that, and that's the long and the short of it.”