Hidden crisis: D.C.-area students owe nearly half a million in K-12 school lunch debt

By Heather Long for The Washington Post

As students in the Washington area went home for winter break, a substantial number were in debt — to the school cafeteria.

Students in the Washington area owe nearly half a million dollars so far this school year in “lunch debt,” according to an analysis by The Washington Post. These are K-12 students in public schools who did not have enough money to pay for meals in their school cafeteria, so they racked up debt to eat.

In some cases, students who cannot pay for lunch are denied hot food and handed a cheese sandwich, according to policy in numerous school districts across the country, including in Prince George’s County Public Schools.

The National School Lunch Program, established in the 1940s, pays free and reduced-cost lunches for millions of U.S. students, but the debts make clear some students still aren’t getting by.

School lunch debt in the Washington area ranges from about $20,000 in the Alexandria City Public Schools to $127,000 in D.C. Public Schools. Tens of thousands of students in the six public school districts in and around the nation’s capital are in the red, according to district officials.

Debt per student varies greatly. In the 161,000-student Montgomery County Public Schools, officials said about 11,000 students have accumulated $80,000 in meal debt so far this school year. That works out to an average of about $7 a student, the equivalent of about three lunches, but officials said that figure can be misleading, as many students have small amounts and then a few have large negative balances.

Teachers, principals, cafeteria workers and poverty experts describe a hidden crisis. And the problem isn’t confined to the D.C. area: Seventy-five percent of U.S. school districts have unpaid student meal debt, according to a survey of 1,550 districts nationwide by the School Nutrition Association, the national organization of school nutrition professionals.

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