By Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research
As a federal program to serve meals to all U.S. public school students during the COVID-19 pandemic ends on June 30, the consequences of unpaid school meal debt will resurface for the millions of students nationwide facing food insecurity.
New data released on LawAtlas.org capture details of state unpaid school meal policies and reveals sparse and variable protections for students who cannot pay for meals at school.
This policy surveillance, developed in a collaboration between Kristen E. Murray, professor of law, and the Center for Public Health Law Research, both at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, captures not only what actions a school is prohibited from taking against students who cannot pay, but also how the school can address unpaid charges, and processes to address violations of the meal charge policy by schools.
Fewer than half of all states — only 19 as of April 2021 — regulate how schools may address unpaid meal charges, according to the data. State policies vary widely, and absent state guidance, local education agencies that manage and regulate may adopt their own policies, which can also be wide-ranging. For example, students could be denied access to meals and academic and extracurricular activities, be publicly identified, or forced to work to pay off the debt.
Even fewer states have laws that require parents or guardians to be notified or involved when a student may have insufficient funds. Maryland is the only state with a law that requires a parent or guardian to be notified of insufficient funds before a student incurs the debt.
There are 12 states with laws that regulate what actions a school may take to collect unpaid fees, including employing debt collectors, setting repayment plans, using charitable funds, or charging collection fees.
Currently only two states — California and Maine — provide a process for meal charge policy complaints to be investigated by the state educational agency.
Before the pandemic, as many as 75% of U.S. school districts had unpaid school meal debt. That debt has increased by 70% in the past decade, according to research by the School Nutrition Association.
Research generally agrees that universal free school meals support improved diet quality, food security, and academic performance.
Legislators in California, Colorado, and Maine have recently undertaken efforts to make free school meals permanent following the end of the federal subsidies. Perhaps other states, or the federal government, will follow suit.