School meal debt spikes in New York after loss of universal free meals

A recent survey showed that 126 school districts in the state have accumulated a total of $1,414,122.86 in current unpaid school meal debt as of March 2023.
Lunch trays in the cafeteria
Schools in New York are experiencing a rise in school meal debt following the termination of universal free meals. / Photo: Shutterstock

School meal debt in New York has risen significantly following the termination of universal free meals, a new study by Hunger Solution New York (HSNY) shows. 

The survey, which is based on 118 responses from K-12 operators representing 135 districts throughout the state, found that 126 school districts reported a total of $1,414,122.86 in current unpaid school meal debt as of March 2023.

School districts that reported significant meal debt were more likely to be rural (56%) and suburban (42%). 

Just over a fifth (20.4%) of respondents said that they conduct extensive outreach to families to try and recoup their debt. While the survey did not ask operators to explain how they reach out to families in detail, Jessica Pino-Goodspeedmanager of school meals policy & engagement at HSNY and author of the survey, believes that extensive outreach to families by schools can have a negative effect on the relationship between families and their district. 

“We know that skyrocketing school meal debt hurts families in terms of the relationship with that school districts,” she says. “The reason of asking about extensive outreach is because of what we're hearing about what happens with the interaction between the school district and families when school meal debt accumulates and how that's really damaging to the educational relationship that really needs to happen between parents and schools.”

If there is still leftover debt at the end of the school year a majority (82.4%) of respondents said that it gets covered by the district’s general fund which is used to hire teachers, provide educational programming and more. 

During the height of the pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture issued a series of waivers that allowed school nutrition programs throughout the country to serve free meals to all public school students. The waivers expired in June, requiring families at many districts to begin paying for meals again this school year.

New York was one of a handful of states that decided to introduce universal free meals legislation following the expiration of the waivers. It currently has active universal free meals bills in the House and Senate. 

The study says that if the state were to go back to offering universal free meals, nearly 2,000 schools across 567 school districts would be able to provide universal school meals again.

“This is a state of crisis, and we really will continue to see the fallout until there's funding put into our meal programs,” says Pino-Goodspeed.  

A survey conducted by HSNY last year also showed that meal debt amongst school nutrition programs in the state was rising at a faster pace compared to previous school years.  



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