School Lunch Debt is Climbing Again

May 1, 2023


  • North Carolina K-12 students have racked up more than $3 million in school lunch debts this year
  • School breakfast/lunch is a burden on lower-income families across North Carolina
  • Republican lawmakers have so far blocked efforts to make all student breakfasts and lunches free


After a bit more than two years’ reprieve, students all across North Carolina’s public schools began paying for breakfast and lunch at school again this year. During the height of the COVID pandemic, federal rules on school lunch reimbursements were changed to make all lunches and breakfasts free to K-12 students nationwide. But those rule changes have now expired, meaning that American schoolchildren now face school lunch bills once again.

Students in North Carolina who do not receive free or reduced-price school meals are still eligible to get lunch or breakfast – up to a point. Student meals that aren’t paid for at mealtime can be charged to that family’s account, and are payable at a later date. The shorthand term for this pending balance due is “lunch debt,” and it has become a serious burden on families both in North Carolina and nationwide.

In just the first four months of the 2022-2023 school year, North Carolina’s K-12 students and their families have racked up over $3 million in “lunch debt” – and the school year is far from over. Ending lunch debt in North Carolina is a slam-dunk state policy idea that would be simple, reasonably inexpensive, enormously helpful to many low-income families, and pro-education, all in one. So what’s the holdup?

Lunch debt is bizarre and cruel

Among almost every other wealthy and industrialized nation on earth, children are not denied food at school for the inability to pay. It is not just in wealthy nations, either – countries like India, Estonia and Bolivia all provide universal school meals, regardless of ability to pay. The link between sufficient nutrition and educational achievement is too clear and well-established to ignore.

Nevertheless, many American states have obsessed over punishing and shaming children and their families for being unable to pay for a school lunch. One Alabama school stamped students’ hands with the words “I need lunch money,” while a school in Illinois barred students with unpaid debts from attending events like prom. Most cases of “lunch shaming” are less dramatic, but no less cruel:

“We had a sixth-grader crying in line, because she had heard her parents talking the night before about how they didn’t have money for lunch,” said Jennifer Bove, director of food and nutrition services for the East Hampton [Connecticut] district. Another student asked his teacher if he could borrow money for lunch. “I almost quit my job that first day,” Bove said. “It was so awful.” (Source: Vox)

At an average cost of around $2.50 per meal, school lunches are not particularly expensive – but they can add up. For many families, what amounts to a $50 per month cost is a very non-trivial burden, especially when times are tight. Eliminating fees for school meals would be a meaningful relief for these families, both financially as well as emotionally.

Counties with the heaviest burden

Data supplied from the state Department of Public Instruction, and as first reported by EducationNC, bears out for the first time how unequally the state’s lunch debt burden truly is. Union County – only the 8th largest in the state by population – leads in total lunch debt accumulated, exceeding even Mecklenburg:

Note that, somewhat counterintuitively, the highest-poverty counties in the state are not represented in this accounting. Counties like Robeson, Tyrrell, Halifax or Bertie - the counties with the lowest median household incomes in the state - have no recorded school lunch debt. This is because such a huge number of students in these counties already qualify for free lunches paid for by the federal (not state) government, and thus accrue no debt.

An educational bargain

Perhaps the best news of all about free student meals is its easily affordable price tag. By most estimates, North Carolina could provide free school breakfast and lunches to all K-12 students for only about $115 million per year - or a bit less than 1% of the total state education budget. That's right - for a little less than 1% of the current, total state budget for K-12 education, North Carolina could provide free school breakfast and lunch to every public school student.

Democratic lawmakers have filed legislation to make free school meals a reality - but as expected, that bill has been ignored. This is a tragedy not only for North Carolina's educational system, but for its children from low-income families most of all. As Republican leaders fast-track sports gambling and giveaways to religious private schools, voters should pay heed to their priorities.

Help build progress for North Carolina.
Get in touch
PO Box 452, Carrboro, NC 27510

    Stay updated with us

    Stay Updated

    Receive the latest news from Carolina Forward