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Food for Thought

School lunch debt is on the rise, and rural districts have it especially hard. But one program offers universal free cafeteria meals in low-income schools. Can it work here?

school lunch, school nutrition, The River Newsroom
The cafeteria at Margaretville Central School.
Photo: Lissa Harris
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Cafeteria workers in Minnesota have thrown children’s food in the trash in front of them. Elementary-school children in Alabama have had their arms stamped “I Need Lunch Money.” A teenager in Illinois was banned from the homecoming dance after racking up lunch debt because of a school accounting error. In one of the most extreme cases of harsh cafeteria collection tactics, parents with lunch debt in suburban Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, got letters from the school threatening to have their children put in foster care.

These “lunch shaming” incidents—sparking parent outrage and viral news headlines—are flash points in a larger, quieter struggle: Most school districts have unpaid lunch debt, and the amount is on the rise. A recent survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of all districts had unpaid cafeteria bills at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, ranging from $10 to as much as $500,000, and that the median district debt balance had risen to $3,400 from about $2,000 in 2014. Schools that cannot collect from parents often turn to charitable contributions to cover their unpaid debt, or dip into the district’s general fund.

For almost half of the nation’s public schools, there’s a potential way out that doesn’t involve humiliating children: Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a USDA program that funds universal free cafeteria meals in low-income schools. The program has been widely considered a success by participating schools, and universal free lunch adoption is on the rise nationwide. But planned cuts to the national social safety net may soon reduce access to the program—and hunger policy experts say small, rural upstate New York schools will be among the most affected by the changes.

Created in 2010 by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, piloted in 11 states, and launched nationwide in 2014, CEP now provides free lunch to 13.6 million US schoolchildren, about 27 percent of the 50.8 million students enrolled in American public schools. To qualify for CEP, a school must have at least 40 percent of its students automatically qualified for free meals through food stamps, Medicaid, or another federal program, and must agree to serve all students breakfast and lunch without charging a fee. The amount of USDA funding a school gets through the program is based on the percentage of students automatically qualifying for free lunch, and ranges from about 64 percent of the full cost of meals for districts on the low end of eligibility to 100 percent in districts with very high rates of poverty.

For large, urban school districts where rates of free lunch approach 60 percent or more, the benefits are clear, and the funding is enough to cover the cost of meals. The New York City public school system, the largest district in the nation, began offering free meals to all students through CEP in 2017. Schools in Middletown and Newburgh—both among upstate New York’s largest districts, with almost 60 percent of students qualifying for free lunch—have also embraced the program. The positive impacts on students have been immediate: In Newburgh’s first year on CEP, rates of tardiness, absence, nurse visits, and behavioral problems in the district went down.

Free school meals are also making progress on child hunger in the smallest and most rural districts. My own district, the Margaretville Central School in the rural Catskills, joined CEP in 2019. Many of upstate New York’s smallest districts qualify for the free lunch program, and some are beginning to embrace it. But these districts typically have fewer students who automatically qualify for free lunch, making CEP adoption a complex budget decision.

For a district at the edge of CEP eligibility, with levels of student poverty high enough to qualify for funding but not high enough to get full reimbursement, joining the program means extra work to make the budget balance. Child hunger advocates are worried that looming cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, will force districts like Margaretville out of the program entirely.

“What we’re mostly concerned about is districts like yours: smaller districts that might have been on the cusp of making this financially viable, and then not being able to because they’ve seen a drop,” says Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, a child nutrition programs specialist for the nonprofit Hunger Solutions New York who helps districts navigate the ins and outs of state and federal school lunch bureaucracy. “These are rural districts. Many of them are very small, less than 500 kids. A change of 10 children means the end of the community eligibility program for them.”


For all the national furor over lunch shaming, so-called “entitlements,” and the politics of spending tax dollars to feed people, the launch of free government-funded meals for Margaretville children this fall was a quiet affair. There was an announcement in the school newsletter. Parents shared the news on Facebook. And that was that: no protests, no flame wars, just kids lining up for pizza sticks and applesauce.

“It’s given the school a different feel,” says principal Laura Norris. “Kids are feeling that they can eat safely. There’s no concern about who has money and who doesn’t.”

Since the school began serving free breakfast and lunch in September, Norris says, she’s seen fewer behavioral issues, especially among the younger children. “I feel like we’re seeing the benefits in terms of kids that can focus. They just feel better when they’re well-fed.”

Margaretville Central School District is one of New York State’s smallest districts, a small-town K-12 in a rural county with no real private alternatives. The district’s lone school, an unassumingly genteel New Deal-era building flanked by tall oak trees, hosts about 370 students. (Full disclosure: One of them is my daughter, who recently started the sixth grade; my wife is an elected town official who has voiced support for free meals in the district.)

Margaretville might have signed up for CEP eventually, but it probably would have taken longer if it hadn’t been for Robin Williams, a cheerful and tireless font of enthusiasm who, when she’s not wrangling her two young children or organizing for some community-minded effort, skates roller derby with the Oneonta Hill City Rollers. Inspired by a national news story about lunch debt, Williams began campaigning for free lunch for Margaretville through community fundraising. In researching the issue, she came across CEP, and began lobbying the district to adopt it.

Local school administrators were already hearing about CEP from state officials and from their peers, and Williams’s passionate pitch for the program fell on open ears. The question was: Could they make the numbers work?

For a school thinking about joining CEP, the critical number is the Identified Student Percentage (ISP): the percentage of the student body who are automatically eligible for free lunch because they receive SNAP, TANF, or Medicaid benefits, are part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations, are enrolled in Head Start, or are classified as foster care, homeless, or migrant children. Most of the students counted in the ISP get their free lunch certification from SNAP.

Under CEP, districts are reimbursed for the meals they serve at 1.6 times the ISP. Margaretville’s ISP currently stands at around 53 percent. At that level, the USDA is reimbursing the district for about 85 percent of the meals served in the cafeteria, leaving the school to find a way to either slash per-meal costs below USDA rates or cover the other 15 percent itself.

Connie Mathiesen, Margaretville’s cafeteria manager, thought the numbers were close enough to make the program work. Last spring, she and other district officials pitched it to the local school board, and were met with enthusiastic support. “We decided it would be a good idea to go ahead and see if the board would be interested in letting us try this,” she says.

The gap between what the USDA will pay for and the cost of feeding every student can run into the tens of thousands of dollars for some eligible districts. Some look at the potential budget gap and decide, like Northampton County Public Schools in Virginia recently did, that they can’t afford to join CEP.

Schools who want to adopt free lunch despite the potential costs find different ways to close the gap. For some districts, participating in CEP means raiding other parts of the school budget to spend on meals; one district in Plumas County, California, faced an extra $45,000 in new costs this year from joining CEP, but school officials decided the program was worth it.

school lunch, school nutrition, The River NewsroomCredit: Photo: Lissa Harris
Connie Mathiesen, Margaretville’s cafeteria manager, convinced the local school board to adopt CEP.

Serving free meals with ISP numbers in the low 40s is daunting, but some regional schools at the low edge of eligibility are making it work. Beekmantown Central School District, a district with about 2,000 students in Clinton County, has been participating in CEP for five years with an ISP of just 43 percent, a number that means the USDA will only reimburse the school for about 69 percent of the meals served. Food services director Roxann Barnes works hard to keep cafeteria costs low, but the district still has to cover some of the expense through the general fund.

“Without the support of the superintendent and the Board of Education, you can’t do what we’re doing here,” Barnes says. “The stressful part is making sure we’re doing everything we can to make it as close to breaking even as possible.”

So far, Margaretville is making CEP work without raiding the general fund. By juggling a half-dozen vendors who bid to supply items like pizza and chicken nuggets, and by making the most efficient use use of staples like vegetables and ground beef that the school gets for free from the government, Mathiesen is keeping the cost of every lunch below the $3.56 per meal contributed by the USDA.

Serving free meals has boosted Margaretville’s cafeteria lunch service by about 25 percent on a typical day, and has nearly doubled the number of students eating school breakfast. The goal is to try to get even more students to participate so the economy of scale works in the district’s favor.


The SNAP program has become a lightning rod for political conflict in recent years. Stymied by Congress, which shot down sweeping proposed cuts to SNAP in both the 2018 federal budget and the most recent Farm Bill, the Trump administration turned to the rulemaking process to chip away at food stamp eligibility. A new work requirement for childless adults that recently went into effect is expected to drop 700,000 people from the food stamp rolls, and two other rule changes that will limit SNAP access have been proposed.

The proposed rule that worries school policymakers would remove “broad-based categorical eligibility” (BBCE) from SNAP, which would restrict states’ leeway for giving benefits to people with income slightly over the federal SNAP guidelines. An agency analysis found recently that the move to drop BBCE, if enacted, would eliminate access for roughly 982,000 of the 30 million children who rely on the free and reduced lunch program.

Most of those children could still apply directly to their local district for free or reduced lunch despite no longer being eligible for SNAP, but the agency did not look at the impacts on school CEP eligibility. A recent research brief for the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, estimated that 142,000 students attend schools that would lose CEP eligibility altogether if the rule is enacted, and another 1.05 million attend schools that would no longer receive full USDA reimbursement. Those figures don’t account for the even greater number of students in partial-reimbursement CEP schools, like Margaretville, where the rule would take a swipe at the bottom line.

School lunch advocates have been quick to condemn the move. In comments submitted to the USDA on October 31, Hunger Solutions New York blasted the proposal, writing that the agency “failed to consider the impacts of the proposed rule on community eligibility.”

The increasingly punitive federal immigration policy is another silent drain on CEP. Undocumented children are not eligible for SNAP, but children who are US citizens are. With ICE increasingly targeting families for separation and deportation, Pino-Goodspeed says, undocumented parents with children who are US citizens are terrified even to apply.

“Politically, there’s so much fear,” she says.

Immigration policy is an incendiary topic, one school officials can be reluctant to engage with, whether for fear of targeting members of the community for punitive enforcement, stirring up controversy, or both. As deeply rural as Margaretville is, detention and deportation are real threats to students and parents in the community. ICE has made detention sweeps in neighboring Fleischmanns, a tiny village whose Hispanic immigrant community has been the subject of an award-winning documentary, and is home to many children in the district.

Asked if she thought the school’s ISP data was missing children who should be qualifying for free lunch, Norris was quick to say yes. “Yeah. I do. I’m concerned.”

The perception that food aid isn’t for working people sometimes keeps people from applying for benefits, Norris says. “I think some families just don’t understand that you can be a full-time employed person and you might have still qualified for some kind of reduction in the cost of meals. I think families feel like, ‘Oh, I have a job, I shouldn’t be asking for that.’”


When discussing the challenge of ensuring children can eat at school, policymakers use phrases like “high-poverty schools” to describe the situations CEP was designed to help. This language fails to convey how normal it is for a US public school to have many children living in poverty. A high-poverty school is not an aberration; it is depressingly typical.

There are 98,158 public schools in the US, according to 2017 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Of those schools, 44,358—almost 45 percent—have high enough levels of poverty to be eligible for CEP, as of the 2018-2019 school year. Measured by districts, the picture is even bleaker: About 64 percent of public school districts have at least one school that is CEP eligible.

Cuts to SNAP may force districts to drop CEP, but it might take a long time for the impact to be felt. CEP participation has four-year cycles, so even if a school’s ISP number drops, it could be several years before it affects eligibility or reimbursement levels. But with the number of schools in the program already high and rising, policies that threaten CEP eligibility could cause widespread problems.

One thing that could help: Congress is due to take up Child Nutrition Reauthorization, a legislation package that would extend the programs of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. As part of that legislation, hunger advocates are lobbying for Congress to change the USDA’s 1.6 multiplier to 1.8, a formula tweak that would make it much more financially feasible for districts at the low edge of CEP eligibility to take up the program. But although Congress was slated to act on the bill this year, little progress has been made.

For her part, Norris isn’t worried; she thinks that because CEP has been successful already, elected officials will find a way to protect it from political slings and arrows. Taking away free lunch from schoolchildren is just the sort of thing that could make trouble for politicians.

“I believe I’ve seen enough about the politics of the way schools work, and the way the government works,” Norris says. “When something is successful, they tend to try to hang onto that, because it has its own political fallout.”

From her position on the front lines of policymaking, Pino-Goodspeed is less sanguine. Organizations like hers are constantly reacting to new efforts to tweak the byzantine rules of food benefits programs, scrambling to analyze the ripple effects of every fresh proposal to cut more holes in the social safety net.

“There’s so much that tries to jab holes into whether kids are really eligible for free or reduced lunch,” Pino-Goodspeed says. “There’s some scary stuff happening in these programs.”

Meanwhile, school districts everywhere continue doing the daunting work of making sure every child gets fed. It’s too early in the school year to tell for sure how well Margaretville is doing in its first year in CEP, but Mathiesen, the cafeteria manager, says it’s going well.

“It’s a good program for everyone. And we don’t have to deal with problems of getting money, getting paid. Charges and things like that were constantly a problem for the cafeteria, because some of the kids’ parents couldn’t come up with the money.”

The critical factor in making the program work for the district, Mathiesen says, is getting more children to eat school meals. The cafeteria is experimenting with ways to make the breakfast-time crunch easier for kids to navigate, and letting kids taste-test new menu items to try to help with food aversions.

“The program really needs participation,” she says.

Is your local school eligible for CEP? Look up data from the Food Research & Action Center to find out.

This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Chronogram.

Lissa Harris is a writer, editor, and volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017. Follow her on Twitter @lissaharris.