As we think about Food and Nutrition on this last day of National Public Health Week 2023, our focus at CPHLR is on the ways our laws and policies support some of the most vulnerable in our communities: children.
Last year, we worked with Temple University Beasley School of Law Professor Kristen Murray to examine details of state unpaid school meal policies. These are policies that generally address what actions a school is prohibited from taking against students who cannot pay, how the school can address unpaid charges, and creates processes to address violations of the meal charge policy by schools.
What we found was startling: Fewer than half of all states – only 19 as of April 2021 – regulate how schools may address unpaid meal charges, according to the data. This can mean the student could be denied access to meals and academic and extracurricular activities, be publicly identified, or forced to work to pay off the debt. 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.
New research provides evidence that access to school meals benefits children in the classroom. Hungry kids simply do not learn as well.
Through the pandemic, the federal government made free lunch available to all public school students nationwide. That program expired in September 2022. California and Maine made their programs permanent in 2021, and other states are now grappling with how and whether to keep their programs going.
Explore our data from May 2022 on school meal debt policies.