U.S. Senator Tina Smith Introduces Legislation to Relieve Families and Schools From School Meal Debt

WASHINGTON, D.C. [05/08/20]—This week, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) introduced her Suspend School Meal Debt Act, which would help families struggling to make ends meet amidst the coronavirus pandemic by cancelling school meal debt.

School meal debt often results in students being denied school meals and experiencing lunch shaming by peers and school administrators. This meal debt also causes even further financial pressure and economic burdens for families already struggling just to keep their head above water. And according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the median amount of unpaid meal debt by school districts across the United States has soared 70 percent over the past six years. In just 2018, 75 percent of school districts reporting to the SNA had unpaid meal debt ranging from $10 dollars to $500,000 dollars.

Now, as families across Minnesota and the country grapple with the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, school meal debt serves to only further harm families. Sen. Smith believes that families faced with reduced hours, layoffs and rising unemployment deserve economic relief from school meal debt.

“We can support students, families and schools in Minnesota and across the country by providing them with relief from school lunch debt right now,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “I’ve fought to make sure school districts and the federal government work together to ensure kids are set up to succeed, and this is another way for us to provide some help to families who are struggling as we all navigate this public health crisis.”

Sen. Smith’s bill—which has a House companion led by U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN 4)—has been endorsed by the following groups in Minnesota: Hunger Solutions Minnesota, Second Harvest Heartland, Legal Services Advocacy Project, Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund, and Minnesota Farmers Union. The legislation is also supported by following organizations nationwide: Western Center on Law and Poverty, Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Three Square Food Bank, Las Vegas, California Association of Food Banks, Social Security Works, Michigan League for Public Policy, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., The Good Acre, Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), The Food Group, Center for Civil Justice, Hunger Task Force, Appetite For Change, Inc., Feeding San Diego, Tennessee Justice Center, SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Poligon Education Fund, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano, Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, Colorado Center on Law and Policy, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Dream of Wild Health, Youth Farm, and New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Sen. Smith’s Suspend School Meal Debt Act would:

  • Formally suspend the collection of all meal debt;
  • Suspend any late fees associated with such unpaid meals;
  • Cancel the meal debt for families; and
  • Require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reimburse each school food authority and local educational agency for school meal debt incurred.

Last year, Sen. Smith introduced the No Shame at School Act with U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN 5) to prohibit public schools from shaming students who are unable to pay for school meals or who have outstanding debt. Sen. Smith also helped introduce the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act—led by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.)—to ban schools from requiring children to wear hand stamps or do extra chores because their parents or guardians have not paid their school meal bills.