03 August 2023 | Economic Security

Will Kansas be next to help alleviate school meal debt pressure for students, families, and schools?

Erin Melton | August 3, 2023

State legislatures across the country have instituted healthy school meals for all students, and many have banned harmful school meal debt treatment.

School meals are an important aspect of students’ education experience. Data show that consistent access to school meals helps students focus and learn, improves test scores, increases the likelihood of graduation, and increases earning potential post-graduation. These meals also provide opportunities for healthy eating. School lunch and breakfast are the meals with the highest nutritional value that many children eat each day. The nutrition standards and quality of school meals have increased significantly over the last decade. Studies estimate that children who eat both school breakfast and lunch consume between 35 percent and 47 percent of their daily calories from these meals.

Because having enough to eat is so important for students’ health and education outcomes, the federal government established the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in 1946 and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) in 1966. These programs offer free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches to students whose families meet income eligibility requirements. Households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) can qualify for free meals, and those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent FPL can qualify for reduced-price meals. Some populations are directly certified.

Pandemic Laid Groundwork for Consistent Access to School Meals

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provided funding for all students to eat school meals at no cost, reimbursing schools at the free meal rate for all meals served. This meant families did not have to fill out the paperwork required to be found eligible for free or reduced-price meals and administrative labor was reduced for school nutrition staff.

During the 2022-2023 school year (the first post-pandemic year in which school meals were not available to all students at no cost), 39.7 percent of students in Kansas schools qualified for free meals and 7.2 percent for reduced-price meals. Unpaid school meal debt in Kansas ballooned from $4.5 million at the end of 2019 to $23.5 million as of July 2023.

From 2020 to 2022, school meal debt did not accumulate because of those no-cost meals to all students, so it may be that this sharp increase is due in part to the reinstatement of the paid and reduced-cost meal categories, along with parents/caregivers not remembering to apply for those lower cost meals. The return of paid meals also coincided with significant inflation and the end of other COVID-19 relief measures, likely putting heavy financial pressure on families and their ability to pay, regardless of income eligibility.

This puts Kansas families — and students trying their best to learn — in difficult situations. Fortunately, the state has options to ease the pressure of school meal costs and debt for schools, families, and students, ultimately increasing Kansas kids’ ability to learn and achieve.

The Potential Harm to Students with Meal Debt

In addition to the financial strain it puts on schools and families, unpaid school meal debt can create stigma for the children whose families are unable to pay, thereby affecting their mental health and impeding their ability to learn. This is because there is no statewide regulation of how schools can treat those students with meal debt and nothing to prevent “lunch shaming.” Schools can take the “regular” meal from the student, throw it away, and give them an alternative meal. Schools can also deny that student any meal at all and even require a wristband or handstamp to identify these students, as has happened in other states.

But Kansas could join the 19 states that have laws regulating what policies schools and districts can and cannot implement regarding students who have unpaid meal debt to ensure no one is singled out due to their family’s inability to pay. Additionally, there are policy solutions that have been implemented in several states that have helped reduce the financial burden on families that leads to debt in the first place.

1. The Community Eligibility Provision

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools and districts above a certain percentage (the identified students percentage, or ISP) of students living in poverty to provide no-cost breakfast and lunch to all students. The benefits of CEP include reducing administrative work for schools and families, reducing meal-related stigma, increasing participation in school meals, and maximizing federal reimbursements.

If between 40 percent and 62.5 percent ISP, schools and districts are eligible but still must subsidize a portion of the cost. Once they reach 62.5 percent ISP, schools and districts electing to participate in CEP are fully reimbursed by the federal government for all meals served.

Unfortunately, many Kansas schools are not taking advantage of this beneficial program. In the 2022-2023 school year, Kansas had the third lowest CEP participation rate in the country among eligible school districts and schools. Only two of the 13 Kansas schools with ISPs above 60 percent participated in CEP, missing out on the highest reimbursement level from the federal government.

Helping eligible ISP schools finance their portion of CEP, like through grouping, and educating high ISP schools about the benefits of the program could lead to more Kansas students eating healthy breakfasts and lunches that help them learn, without stigma, while easing the administrative workload for both schools and families.

2. Eliminating the Reduced-Price Category

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows eligible state departments of education and school districts to subsidize students’ portion of reduced-price meals if the funding is available in their food service budgets. This means that those students who qualify for reduced-price meals receive them at no cost, essentially eliminating that category. The federal government reimburses schools for those meals at the same rate, but the schools fill in the gap in cost. Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have legislation subsidizing reduced-price school breakfasts, lunches, or both.

We saw this achieved in the Emporia School District, which recently voted to subsidize reduced-price meals. If implemented statewide, this option would reduce the financial burden for Kansas families with incomes too high to qualify for free meals but still struggle to make ends meet. It would also be a step toward reducing the accumulation of school meal debt.

3. Healthy School Meals for All

The most efficient and widely beneficial option would not only eliminate the problem of future school meal debt, but would also eliminate stigma about eating school meals, make things easier for school administrators and families, and increase the number of students getting the nutrition they need to learn and thrive. Often referred to as “healthy school meals for all” (HSMFA), this is a state-level policy that provides 100 percent reimbursement to schools for every school meal they serve without income eligibility restrictions. Michigan recently became the seventh state to ensure that all students will have access to healthy school meals, no matter their financial situation, by passing state-level HSMFA legislation.

These are some of the options that could reduce the pressure of school meal debt for Kansas students, families, and schools. More importantly, this would increase the number of children eating healthy meals at school, ensuring they are prepared to learn and grow in school and beyond.

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