Candrice Jones is like any other low-income parent in American. She struggles to make ends meet and does the best that she can. Her husband can’t work due to an injury from a car accident. She herself works odd jobs at a temp agency. In order to take the financial burden off her shoulders, she applied to get her son Kyrie free lunch.
Kyrie is in the 7th grade at Coolidge Junior High in Illinois. He has a learning disability and is part of an individualized education program to help him overcome. One day out of the blue, Candrice received a bill near $1,000. Her son’s lunch application was not processed correctly, so the only time he got free lunch was the first month. Every other month racked up a debt.
“I felt bad as a mother because I couldn’t take care of the bill,” she said. “It’s almost a thousand dollars. I don’t even have it. I couldn’t pay it off if I wanted to.” After the mistake was caught, she had to fill out a second application, which finally worked correctly and the rest of his lunches were covered.
The school declined to comment on the situation, but Candrice says the school still expects her to pay the $1,000 debt and even told her to make payments if she has to. That is leading to more school hardships for Kyrie. He is being forced to sit out of any school events until the debt is paid. That means no dances, sporting events, or fieldtrips. That means no Homecoming or Prom when he’s a senior.
School Lunch Debt a Growing Problem
This story isn’t unique to Kyrie and Candrice. It’s happening more frequently across the country. While this instance was a clerical error, it does to show a lot of the same problems families are having with student lunch debt. School lunches are a massive burden on a lot of families who can’t afford to pay.
It’s not just the families, but also the schools who are struggling. They have to determine where the line is between helping students who can’t pay and those who can. The line is an ever-changing point that can reveal whether a family is really needy or not. Either way, they can’t afford to accommodate every student a meal as their budgets are constantly being cut.
There’s no real official student lunch debt number. It’s difficult to make that estimate, but the School Nutrition Association surveyed 1,500 schools. They found that the average amount of student lunch debt from $2,000 to $2,500 in the past two years. The Washington Post released an article that stated students owed $500,000 in outstanding student lunch debt in Washington D.C. alone.
In Denver, Colorado, their school districts rose $13,000 since 2016 to a new total of $356,000. “School districts nationwide are really feeling the squeeze … and unfortunately, I think we’re going to be hearing more about this in the coming years,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), referring to the persistence of school lunch debt.
“For a lot of districts, you’re looking at having to cover these costs out of the general fund. And if it’s year after year, and it’s an excessive amount of debt for the school district, that’s impactful to core educational activities.”
School Lunches on the Whole
Of course, if Kyrie’s school lunch application had been properly processed, there would’ve been no problem. The school would’ve been reimbursed by the federal government. The school lunch program is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their program is called the Nation School Lunch Program. It helps needy families and schools afford lunch for their students.
Every year, this program reimburses schools at the tune of $13.6 billion. The catch is, in order to qualify for free lunches, you must come from a family 130% below the federal poverty line. That equals about $32,630 per year. At 185% of income ($46,435), you would qualify for a reduced-price lunch.
While the government gives billions in food subsidies, the one thing they’re not allowed to do is use the funding to pay student lunch debt. Because schools aren’t getting that money back from the government, they put all sorts of undue pressure onto the families who often can’t afford to pay. That includes keeping the children from participating in school activities.
Many schools won’t even allow the child to walk across the stage or receive their diplomas if they owe. Candrice Jones believes that the system is completely broken. It was a clerical error on the school’s part, but that’s only a small part of the story. In her mind, the worst part is how they use the children to get money from parents.
“They know your kids are going to be upset. They know your kids are going to be mad. And so they know that your kids are going to press you to get this bill paid,” she told me. “I felt bad as a mother because I couldn’t take care of the bill.”