The Student [Lunch] Debt Crisis

By Erin Williams

On October 12, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill attempting to end school “lunch shaming,” which often accompanies the alternative meals given to students who have lunch debt. This bill is an amendment to the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017, which ensured students had at least one meal provided during the school day, despite their unpaid lunch fees. This alternative meal is the only food option provided for children with school lunch debt, and often brings about some form of bullying towards the children who are forced to accept the lunch. Children from low-income families experience this very frequently, as their parents are unable to pay off the lunch debt. The new California bill combats the bullying by allowing children a meal of their choice for lunch, regardless of the debt owed. 

Previously, The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) was created in 1946 to address the issue of students being unable to afford lunch by requiring schools to provide this alternative meal. NSLP is a federally funded meal program to assist low income families in the public-school system.

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Image Source: Health News Florida

Unfortunately, this program fell short for the majority of children who needed it. In 2016, 30.4 million children participated in the program, and while this has been a great starting point, there are many changes that need to be made in order to improve the current plan. One of the most widespread issues with the program today is the insufficient nutrition provided in the alternative meals. For example, a cheese sandwich, which provides almost no nutritional value, is commonly offered as an alternative meal. Nutritional deficiency is already a common problem among low-income families due to the price differences between healthy and processed food. 

These nutritionally-deficient meals can also have harmful impacts on the academic performance of the children they aim to help. A study analyzing the effects of nutritional deficiency in American children found links between these alternative meal programs and long-term, negative effects on cognitive, academic, and psychosocial development. For example, food-insufficient students were more likely to repeat a grade, have more missed days from school, and have more mental health problems. All of these outcomes are highly associated with poor academic performance and slowed cognitive development. A similar study also found a link between food insufficiency and poor social skills. These skills play a huge factor in a student’s future as they interact with others and, eventually, build their career. 

While California may be setting the example of moving towards positive change, New Jersey has implemented a policy that goes in the opposite direction. This rule will ban middle and high school students with over $75 worth of lunch debt from partaking in extracurricular activities, field trips, and school dances. This is an incredibly dangerous policy, as it will negatively impact a student’s ability to get into college after high school, because participation in extracurriculars during high school is a requirement for most collegiate programs. This policy disproportionately affects children from lower-income families, further widening the gap between the lower, middle, and upper class. This has already become a vicious cycle, and policies like this will only reinforce  it.

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Image Source: Mealtime

An all-inclusive nationwide policy of free and equal school lunches for all students in the public-school system is a direct way in which we can positively impact children’s lives. California’s new policy is headed in this direction, and hopefully other states will follow in their lead. Children are the foundation of our nation and will grow up to continue the legacies they’ve learned. Teaching them that every child deserves equal access to school lunch will play an imperative role in their perception of others – that all children are made equal and deserve the opportunity to thrive. 

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