The concept of "school lunch debt" is obscene

The concept of "school lunch debt" is obscene
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A coalition of groups in Bucks County, Pennsylvania just saw their effort to get the student lunch debt in one particular school district canceled. The canceling of almost $22,000 by the Bristol Borough School District is indeed great news, and an example of good organizing work, until you stop and remember that we're talking about "student lunch debt" a very real thing that exists. Not just in Pennsylvania, but everywhere around the country.

According to the Education Data Initiative, 1.54 million students in the U.S. cannot afford to pay for meals at school. That adds up to $262 million a year in accumulated debt. Students who hold such debt – about $170 per child a year on average – can be found in about 75% of schools.

Due to the way we insist on means testing any form of relief for people in need in this country, the way we manage meals for kids in school leaves many of them in a precarious sort of limbo. Not poor enough to qualify for free meals programs, but still too poor to be able to afford to pay for the actual food.

Over the past two years, a program started at the beginning of the pandemic has provided free meals to any public school student in the country. This very sensible effort to ensure that children have adequate food to survive, as well as to be able to concentrate in school well enough to learn – ostensibly the whole reason we have them there in the first place – has just recently come to an end. Now that debt which had been on pause, much like student loans, is about to start being collected on again. And yes that might mean sending actual collection agencies to harass families, which is, insanely, another thing that actually happens in this country. Or maybe it might just mean giving kids with too much lunch debt a shameful sort of debtors' lunch – a piece of cheese on white bread or whatever – or punishing them by preventing them from going on school trips, or taking part in activities like dances or sports, until they pay up. One district in Pennsylvania went so far as to threaten to send kids into the foster system if their parents didn't make good on what they owed.

Nonetheless, the work put in in Bucks County showcases that fighting back against this type of shit can be done. I called Nick Marcil, a member of the Pennsylvania branch of the national group the Debt Collective to talk about the issue of student lunch debt, as well as how they took it on in their backyard.

Earlier this week Jonathan Katz wrote for Hell World on the uncanny feeling of browsing the gift shops in beautiful torturous Guantanamo Bay. Yes there is one at Gitmo too.

Lest you think the prison camp itself would be a bridge too far to sell souvenirs, don’t worry, they’ve got you covered. At the main gift shop, you can get a whole line of mugs, shot glasses, hoodies, fanny packs, and T-shirts from the “Joint Task Force GTMO Detainee Operations” line, all festooned with guard towers and barbed wire. There are more “comedic” versions too. One shirt featured a sunglasses-wearing iguana in front of a scene meant to invoke the prison camp.

That piece was for paid subscribers and you can find it here.

Browsing at the Gitmo gift shop

I also wrote about the magic of Salem, MA, and the experience of visiting a museum.

I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m any good at going to museums anymore. I try but I just don’t really get transported anywhere. Not like I do just standing on an old street. Museums necessarily strip away a few of our senses. Unlike outside nothing smells like anything and you usually can't touch or thank god taste anything so that just leaves the looking and sometimes listening. With so much quiet it's hard for me to block out the part of my brain that’s operating in the background going you are in a museum you are in a museum it is time to be moved by art.

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Tell people who might not know what the Debt Collective is.

The Debt Collective is a debtors' union. One of the big focuses, of course, has been on student debt, which a lot of people know us for. But we focus on plenty of other kinds of debt, whether it’s carceral debt or this with lunch debt, and really trying to fight against it and bring folks out of the debtors' closet to talk about what debt does to them and their families. We’re attempting to organize for a world in which folks don’t have to take on debt for basic needs.

There’s really no aspect of life in America in which the possibility of going into debt doesn’t exist. Whether it’s being born, it costs so much to literally be born, to eat, to have shelter, to go to school. It costs so much money to die.

That’s very much the case.

But this one man. They’re all bad, but just the concept of student lunch debt, like medical debt... it’s this quintessentially American evil.

I definitely agree. I was on free lunch myself for about a year or so, because of my own family circumstances at one point in time. That’s what got me personally invested in doing something on this issue. It’s just messed up the way in which we have these free and reduced lunch programs where it’s all means tested. Just over the past two or so years, because of the pandemic, we had been giving it free universally to any student. If you needed food you could get it. No means testing, no nothing. I think that showcased a way in which we can do this.

That’s expiring just now.

Right around the start of the pandemic Congress allowed the USDA to expand the free lunch programs to all students. Especially early on a lot of schools were shutting their doors, but there were still kids that needed food. It was like are they going to directly say no to a kid whose parents send them off to school to get their lunch? No. That’s ridiculous. It’s also ridiculous that kids have lunch debt now. But it expired at the end of June. There was all this talk about this Keep Kids Fed Act. One of the important provisions that was not in there was making sure free lunches were still continuously extended to all universally.

Some Democrats are pushing for it. Ilhan Omar has been pretty vocal about this issue. Of course Republicans don’t want to pay for it. It’s an example of the entire conservative mindset – “no free lunch” – made literal. For children.

These kids go to a public K-12 school. Are they as a child paying a dime out of their own pocket to go? No. But when it comes to the lunches they have to pay. You’re saying to these kids that you have to go to school but you also have pay for lunch.

But yes, Ilhan Omar has a bill in the House, and Bernie Sanders has one in the Senate, which are both basically the same, a universal school meals program act, which would make free universal lunches a thing throughout the United States, and also make sure to cancel all lunch debt.

Pa. quietly reverses ‘lunch shaming’ ban as school district debt grows
Language within this year’s school code bill allows districts to withhold hot meals from students who accrue more than $50 in lunch debt.

I’ve seen stories in Pennsylvania of different kinds of lunch shaming, and across the U.S. as well. Here in PA there were some anti-lunch shaming bans, but they got repealed or rolled back. It is its own hellscape. Why are we doing this? Kids shouldn’t have to feel shame or be directly shamed for this. Or face a lot of different consequences. In one district in Pennsylvania they were threatening the parents that they would send the kids into the foster system for not paying their lunch debt. Really? That’s what you’re doing? They eventually backed up and apologized, but why even go there in the first place?

Don’t Have Lunch Money? A Pennsylvania School District Threatens Foster Care
Wyoming Valley West School District in Northeastern Pennsylvania sent families a letter stating that their children would be removed from their homes if unpaid cafeteria meal debt was not settled.

I wrote about something a couple years ago where kids with lunch debt were being prevented from going to prom, or on school trips, walking at graduation, and things like that. Another time about kids having trays of food ripped out of their hands when they didn't have enough money in their account. A while back there was a guy on a school board in Wisconsin who said he was worried kids were going to become "spoiled" and "addicted to" the idea of getting lunch for free. It’s just fucking cruel. I think the idea, maybe on a bigger level from a conservative point of view, whether it’s Republicans or conservative Democrats, is that they don’t want kids to get used to the idea that the government can help you. Similarly with the student debt cancelation. They’re freaking out because it’s an illustration that life in America doesn’t have to be like this. The government can actually help people. I think they don’t want anyone to get a taste of that possibility.

I like to think of it in the sense of a library. You go and you’re able to get a book. They’re not going to means test you. It should be the same thing for when you go to school and you need to get breakfast or lunch.

Regarding the Omar and Sanders bills, I know even our governor here in Pennsylvania was pushing for an extension of universal free school meals for an additional year at least. The governor in Kansas was pushing for it to happen indefinitely. It’s not like there aren’t other folks out there calling for this. It really is, in my opinion, regular people who need to stand up and bring up this issue, whether it’s at a school board meeting, or within their own local community in the places people meet. People are so wired in a sense by society to say lunch debt, just like student debt or medical debt, is an individual problem, and it’s just on you. That’s not the reality. There are so many people facing it, but the shame and stigma sets you up to think it’s an individual problem. But it’s not, there are so many bigger structural problems.

Even if you did subscribe to the idea that people take on student debt of their own volition – and I disagree with that, I was like seventeen when I was being told to talk on this debt – these are literally little kids. The idea of assigning personal responsibility language to children is just profane to me.

Regarding lunch shaming stuff, I think some states have banned it, but if I understand correctly I think in Pennsylvania, as you said, reversed a policy banning that a couple years ago. So kids who have debt or can’t pay will get this shitty little cold sandwich instead of whatever the hot meal of the day is. Aside from the lost nutritional value, that leads to a stigma. It’s not like kids don’t notice another kid is eating the “poor person” lunch, right?

Definitely. One of my friends just showed me a post on the Facebook group of his school district, where, literally on the first day back to school, a kid  had the tray taken from them because they didn’t have enough money in their account. The kid supposedly was not given any food, not even the alternative shitty cheese sandwich kind of thing. If that’s the case that that happened, that is insane. Why are you doing this to a kid? The kids have to go to school. They need to get food. Do you not want them to have any sort of functioning brain for the day? To not get any sort of education?

To some extent I think that actually can be the case. Some people out there feel like, well, those kids are shit out of luck and that’s their own problem. But it shouldn’t be up to them. It’s up to us as a society to come together and to understand that every single child in a K-12 should have breakfast and lunch. They should not have to be worrying what money they have in their school lunch account, or if their parents didn’t fill out whatever free or reduced lunch income form. Incomes, as we know, especially over the pandemic, change all the time. I know that’s the case for myself. A lot of folks who maybe just straddle that line, maybe one year they qualify, the next they don’t, they might not even know some of these benefits exist, which is its own messed up thing.

That’s the thing about means testing. It creates all this confusing paperwork. And if we’re talking about the parents of kids who incur lunch debt or can’t pay for lunch, they’re probably either working constantly, or might be in a bad situation and not on top of the changing qualifications all the time. Maybe they missed an arbitrary deadline to apply. All of this extra bullshit just to make sure that someone who can afford something won’t get a single thing for free, and it comes back around and harms the people who need it the most.

I’ve been reading a bit about how in some states they have collection agencies go after the parents of kids with lunch debt.

Emily Rizzo, who wrote a piece for WHYY about our sort of win, she had mentioned in one Pennsylvania district that they’re doing that. There is literally a business that is making money off of trying to collect on this. In the Debt Collective we always talk about how there are always these secondary debt markets, whether it’s for student debt or medical debt, or, yeah, for this, for lunch debt. It’s messed up. Imagine there’s an agency out there that is like I will buy this debt for pennies on the dollar. Then I am going to say you owe me, let’s say... $10,000, that they bought for $100. That shows that whatever amount of debt is supposedly accrued, the money is all made up anyway.

And we’re talking about hiring an agency to go after kids, and some of these debts aren’t that high. Average meal debt per child is something like $170 a year. You’re going to hire some goon to go shake them down? It’s fucking mafia shit.

Recently you all and some other groups managed to get the school lunch debt canceled in a school district in Pennsylvania.

The PA branch of the Debt Collective, BuxMont DSA, and another group Lower Bucks For Change, have been working together for over a year. We had meetings, at first, trying to first comprehend and understand this problem. There was a neighboring school district where some grocery store chain had given money to pay off the lunch debt there. We don’t want to do that. We want to make sure that this debt just gets canceled. It shouldn’t be whatever corporation getting a PR thing out of it, saying, look, we solved the problem. No, it’s still going to build up over time.

Charity is all well and good in the short term. In other places around the country local businesses and churches and so on will do like a one time donation to erase lunch debt, but it’s not the root of the issue.

Exactly. And we’re very aware of that. Bristol Borough School District has a pretty low average income. We wanted to make sure that all this lunch debt was gone. We were also trying to make sure we continue on the fight for free universal lunch, whether it’s in our county, or Pennsylvania as a whole, or nationally. We had really tried to bring other folks together into this, reaching out to teachers, parents. We had what we called a debtors' assembly in this local park, which was nice, just to talk about this issue. One of the things I find interesting with lunch debt is that, like we were saying about means testing and bureaucracy of things, there are so many little things you don't know about the debt. You mentioned the cheese sandwich earlier, there are laws about what’s allowed or not allowed, and it changes by district. Maybe a kid has this much in debt and that’s when you can potentially give them that as an alternative meal by USDA standards. There's also different rules on how school districts can or can’t use money in regards to lunch debt and school meals. Which is why the solution is to make sure we have freel and universal meals everywhere.

Additionally, some of the work was figuring out who do we target?  Who do we make demands to? Also, how to find out even what the exact amount is. Someone in our group sent a Right to Know request to find out the exact amount. We wanted to find out how many students have lunch debt, how many have over $25, how many have over $100, and so on, to paint a picture to people what this problem actually looks like in their own communities. Then reach out to folks who you would think would be supportive of it in local groups. I reached out to someone who has been on my local school board to find out who even oversees this. That’s one of the things in the whole bureaucracy of this is how a lot of the time people don’t even know who is in charge. You would think the superintendent would know. A lot of times it’s just assigned to some random person. We found out the business manager of the school district was the one who oversees it here.

Then we had two folks go to the Bristol Borough School District meeting to give a speech about the issue in a national context, but also in Bristol Borough, sharing stories from folks who have or had lunch debt. And they were willing to cancel it from there. I was very ecstatic.

Since then it’s been about making sure that it actually happens. Whatever politician can say one thing then later down the line they might not follow through, so it was us making sure they canceled it by the point they said they would cancel it. Just making sure that they followed through.

[Repeating this] is something that will be different in each school district, what the climate is, whether you can get folks to come out of the lunch debtors' closet. It can be hard. A lot of folks don’t necessarily want to share that they have this debt, and I get it. We shame and stigmatize them.

Before we wrap up what are your thoughts on the Biden student loan cancellation? Not enough? A step in the right direction?

Certainly not enough. President Biden has the legal authority to cancel all federal student loan debt. He can do that with a stroke of a pen. By no means is this anywhere near close to enough.

I will say though that the announcement is definitely a big win for debtors. If you truly look over the history of the Debt Collective, or the recent history of Biden running for office, making some sort of promise on debt cancelation, I think it really took debtors' power to make sure that that authority was shown. That Biden does have the authority to do it.

This is something that will help a lot of debtors, maybe they have $10,00 left or less. But there are so many folks where things might be screwed up, and the federal government is wrong, they did receive a Pell Grant. Or folks who had consolidated their loans and now it’s no longer federal it is private debt.

That’s me.

Plenty of folks have private student debt and this isn’t going to help them. You could certainly argue, like a collection agency, that the government could do a debt buy in terms of private loans too and then just cancel that.

It’s something where I think debtors need to keep coming together to talk about this issue, because it’s not over. $10,000 is not the fix. If Biden can cancel $10,000 he can go all the way.

If you'd like to get in touch with the people behind this effort in PA for advice on how to try it where you live, reach out to

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I can't remember if I already shared this recently but either way here's a nice song. See you next time.