Bucks school lunch debt relief set to expire; groups work to keep it going

School lunch debt relief programs that began during the pandemic are set to expire. Many organizations try to keep them going.

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The Bucks Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition, a collection of local community organizations in Bucks County, has banded together to campaign for the cancellation of student lunch debt across the county.

Currently all Pennsylvania school districts have the option to offer free breakfast and lunch to students through the Seamless Summer Option (SSO), a nationwide initiative that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and was extended into the 2021 school year by the United States Department of Agriculture.

As long as SSO continues, families don’t owe lunch money to their district. But SSO is slated to end in July 2022, and districts can start collecting lunch debt.

Part of the pushback against lunch debt collection relates to the tactics school districts may use. In October 2019, Pennsylvania silently reinstated a ‘lunch shaming’ bill, which allowed schools to offer alternative meals, use collection agencies, or exclude students from school activities if a student reached a certain amount of debt.

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The Bucks Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition, made up of the Pennsylvania Debt Collective, BuxMont Democratic Socialists of America, and Lower Bucks for Change, is concerned about student lunch debt carrying over from 2019 into September 2022. They fear families will be hit with more financial burdens.

“There’s a whole host of pandemic related relief efforts that are coming to an end, and so this is just going to be a wave that hits people in really destructive ways,” said Jason Wozniak, a professor within the Educational Foundations and Policy Studies Department at West Chester University.

Wozniak is one of the organizers spearheading the Bucks County Lunch Debt Coalition, and a member of the Pennsylvania Debt Collective, an organization campaigning to cancel all student debt.

Before the pandemic, residents across the state and the county were weighted down by lunch debt. As of October 2021, Pennsylvania has a total of $14.9 million in student lunch debt, according to the Education Data Initiative.

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Of those students in debt, many do not qualify for the free and reduced meal program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the Education Data Initiative, as of October 2021, 87,468 students in Pennsylvania are food insecure and don’t qualify for free meals.

In Bristol Township School District, which serves 6,200 students, the total amount of student lunch debt for the 2020-21 school year was $113,085. According to the district, 922 students owe money to the school, and 772 of those students owe more than $50.

According to Bristol Township School District officials, the district plans to start collecting lunch debt in September, following their school board policy.

Next door in the smaller Bristol Borough School District with 1,300 students, there was $22,073 of student lunch debt on the books from the 2020-21 school year. The current amount of student lunch debt on the books is $15,875. According to the district, 212 students owe money, and 75 of them owe more than $50.

“Across the country, and especially right here in Pennsylvania, we have kids going hungry or into debt for food as they are trying to get a basic education,” said Wozniak. “We live in a debt economy, which means that people are forced to make ends meet by going into massive amounts of debt. School lunch debt is another way this sad reality is revealed.”

The coalition started campaigning in lower Bucks County during the summer of 2021.

In September 2021, the coalition held a “Debtors Assembly,” in Bristol’s Riverfront Park, where community members from nearby school districts spoke about their experiences with lunch debt. Alumni spoke about the ways their schools had used “debt shaming” methods.

“They talked about being pulled out of line and had to go talk to administration about why they couldn’t afford lunch and being threatened with not being able to graduate,” said Elizabeth Lester-Abdalla of Lower Bucks for Change. “They were carrying debt before they were even able to earn a living wage.”

In the Quakertown School District, the story was much the same. Prior to COVID-19, lunch debt was at approximately $18,000, according to the district.

In November 2019, the district was planning on hiring a collection agency to collect lunch debt from parents.

The discussion of the move caused much concern amongst parents — that combined with the pandemic forced the district to backpedal from its position.

Karen Hammerschmidt, the executive director of Quakertown Community Outreach (QCO), told WHYY News that parents were “up in arms”

“There was an uproar in town at that time,” Hammerschmidt said.

Quakertown Community Outreach responded by raising roughly $2,000 to aid with the debt. QCO tried to find individual parents that were indebted to the district, but they came up short and sent the full check to the school district.

Hammerschmidt said she believes people were embarrassed.

“I think that’s why we didn’t get anybody to apply for their own specific amount to be paid off because they just don’t want to take that chance of getting out there,” said Hammerschmidt.

According to Quakertown School District, approximately one third of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price meals. That isn’t enough students to allow the district to apply for universal lunch for the entire district via the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CEP allows school districts to give every student a free lunch, if at least 40% of families qualify for a meal program. Many districts that qualify, though, do not sign up. As of 2017, more than half of eligible districts have opted against participating in CEP.

Melisaa Duvelsdorf, of Buxmont DSA, said working families should not have to “prove they deserve financial help” anyway, “or risk going into debt to feed their children when the money already exists.”

“Schools already have the infrastructure to feed all of their students,” added Duvelsdorf. “Why should families be forced to take on the burden and stress of applying for a program that can be rolled out nationally? The federal government has already implemented this program for two years during the pandemic.”

One parent of two students in the Quakertown School District, Christie Gera, said she attempted to donate to the district in 2019 to help ease the burden from her neighbors who couldn’t afford lunch. But according to Gera, the district denied her request because of privacy concerns.

Quakertown School District did not respond to questions concerning debt collections starting in the new 2022-23 school year.

“I was absolutely livid and heartbroken for the families who that would affect,” said Gera.

She hopes the free lunch program will be extended into the next school year. If not, she would like the community to create a medium to support students who need help with lunch payments.

But, Wozniak said the solutions need to be more structural.

“If we’re in the situation where either individuals or corporations have to bail kids out of lunch, then we got a problem on the structural level,” said Wozniak. “That needs to be addressed by better wages for parents. That needs to be addressed by providing free lunches.”

He pointed to a bill introduced by Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar in 2019 to cancel all student lunch debt and provide three free meals to all students.

Moving forward, the coalition plans to educate more residents in Bucks County around the issue in order to help foster conversations in other districts.

“If we come together collectively, as debtors,then we have power,” said Wozniak. “But if we’re alone in debt, we suffer.”

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