September 26, 2023

Whitehouse, Fetterman, & Welch Introduce Legislation to Cancel All School Lunch Debt

Washington, DC – U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), John Fetterman (D-PA) and Peter Welch (D-VT) have introduced the School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act to cancel student lunch debt nationwide.

“No child in Rhode Island – or anywhere in America – should be penalized for not being able to afford school lunch.  It’s that simple,” said Whitehouse.  “Our legislation will eliminate lunch debt in schools, supporting every child’s access to a healthy meal and positioning them for long-term success.”

“‘School lunch debt’ is a term so absurd that it shouldn’t even exist.  That’s why I’m proud to introduce this bill to cancel the nation’s student meal debt and stop humiliating kids and penalizing hunger,” said Fetterman.  “It’s time to come together and stop playing political games with American’s access to food. September is Hunger Action Month and I’m proud to be introducing this bill to help working families now, while we work to move our other priorities to combat food insecurity in our nation.”

“Our students shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re paying for lunch – full stop. I’m proud to partner with my colleagues Senators Fetterman and Whitehouse on this commonsense bill, and urge my colleagues to stand with us,” said Welch.  “We have a duty to ensure that every student – in Vermont, and across America – is supported and respected.

During the height of COVID-19 in 2020, federal lawmakers made the unprecedented move of providing free lunch for every public-school student in America.  This program expired last fall, but many states have been rolling out their own universal free school meals programs and seen sizable results.  Even schools that don’t offer free meals usually won’t turn away hungry students.  Instead, schools provide food and collect payment later, leading to “school lunch debt.”

There are over 30 million children in the U.S. who can’t afford their school meals and the national public school meal debt is a whopping $262 million a year.  In Rhode Island, over 35,000 children collectively owe nearly $6.5 million in school lunch debt, according to one estimate.  Meanwhile, child poverty in the United States more than doubled last year, while the average household income declined.  This bill will ease the financial burden on working families by directing the USDA to pay for all debts owed to schools for lunch or breakfast programs.

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

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