Nettelhorst Elementary School students eat their lunches in March 2006 in Chicago, Illinois.

Nettelhorst Elementary School students eat their lunches in March 2006 in Chicago, Illinois.

What happens when a student incurs debt from meals provided at school?

One Pennsylvania school district tried to collect on that debt by sending parents a letter threatening that their children could be taken from them.

The New York Times reported on the case:

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” read the letter, which was signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District. “This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

This letter is just one of many recent examples across the country of students and families being penalized for failing to pay their debt from school meals.

In Rhode Island, two school districts began using collection agencies to recover school lunch debt. In one district, the debt had reached $90,000.

What does this issue reveal about American families? And what impact does it have on students?

From Eater:

Some states are seeing school lunch debt soar into the millions of dollars, but the exact amount of lunch debt schools nationwide have accumulated collectively isn’t known because the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t collect or provide that data. As an issue that disproportionately involves marginalized families — those in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck, or even undocumented immigrants afraid to participate in the federal free lunch program — lunch debt magnifies the widespread economic and structural inequities that have historically existed in the U.S. It also has a very real effect on children — whether causing them [to] go hungry (since school meals are the only meals some children eat in a day), hurting their self-esteem, or both.

We talk the push to punish parents for school meal debt and why schools are resorting to tough tactics.

Show produced by Haili Blassingame.


  • Andrew Ruis Historian of medicine and learning scientist, the University of Wisconsin, Madison; author, “Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States”; @andrewruis
  • Laura Meckler National education writer, The Washington Post; @laurameckler
  • Crystal FitzSimons Director, School and Out-of-School Time Programs for the Food Research and Action Center

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows

The News Roundup – Domestic

Friday, Dec 06 2019The next phase of the impeachment process begins. A Democratic contender drops out of the presidential race. And the Attorney General weighs in on protests against police.