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Many Pennsylvania students are starting the school year in debt — over lunch.
As of October, Pennsylvanians had a total of $14.9 million in student lunch debt, according to the Education Data Initiative. Since the nationwide initiative that provided free school meals expired on June 30, school districts can start collecting on that debt now.
One Bucks County school district has decided not to.
On Tuesday, Bristol Borough School District announced that it had canceled all student lunch debt — a total of $21,914.49.
School Board President David Chichilitti said the board was happy to cancel the debt.
“We’re frugal on how we spend our money. And we had extra money. And if we didn’t, we would have found out where to get the money to forgive this,” Chichilitti said.
Bristol Borough School District is one of the poorer school districts in Bucks County, with a median household income of $60,028. About 70% of the district’s 1,280 students qualify for free or reduced meals, according to district Business Manager Chris McHugh. The median household income for Bucks County is $93,181.
The board voted unanimously to cancel the debt after members of a local organization, the Bucks Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition, brought attention to the issue in a February 2022 board meeting.
“This got lost in the pile until they mentioned it to us,” Chichilitti said.
The coalition, organized by the Pennsylvania Debt Collective, BuxMont DSA, and Lower Bucks for Change, has been working on a county-wide campaign to end student lunch debt. They held a “Debtors Assembly” in Bristol’s Riverside Park in September 2021. Part of their 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.
Nick Marcil, an organizer with the Bucks Lunch Debt Coalition, praised the board’s decision.
“People really have a voice and have power,” Marcil said. “We have the power to stop that and make sure that every single kid has school meals for free, as I think it should be … it’s just absurd. But it really is a great win.”
According to the Bristol Borough School District’s announcement, it will begin to track the lunch debt again in September.
Chichilitti said the board will keep an eye on the debt.
“And if we accumulate debt, as it comes in, if it still continues, which it probably will, we’ll look at forgiving it again,” he said.
The coalition is hoping to use Bristol Borough as an example to bring residents of other districts together to push for the same decision in their communities.
“If one district was able to do this, then others can follow,” Marcil said.
Neighboring Bristol Township School District, which serves about 6,000 students, had a total of $113,085 in student lunch debt for the 2020-21 school year. According to the district, 922 students owe money to the school, and 772 of those students owe more than $50. Bristol Township School District officials told WHYY News that they plan to start collecting lunch debt in September.
Pennsbury School District contracted a collection agency for lunch debt over $200. Total debt for students as of January 2022, was over $57,000. District officials said in February they planned to continue collection efforts once the free meal program ended.
“I don’t think any of those kids or parents have anything to be sorry for, to ask for forgiveness for,” Marcil said. “It should really be, society saying, ‘I’m sorry that we indebted you. I’m sorry that we aren’t providing school meals to you because that means to live is crucial.’”