A middle school student walks into her cafeteria and makes a beeline for the food. She picks out her favorite foods and takes the tray to the cashier. It’s then and there that she’s told: no deal. She’s not able to buy the food her peers can because she owes money for previous lunches. Instead, she may be served something else.
And for a middle schooler, that difference is embarrassment enough to cause shame.
Lunch debt is very much alive in Maryland and around the country, affecting thousands of children.
During the 2018–2019 school year, over 900,000 children attended a public school throughout Maryland’s 24 public school systems, according to a report from Maryland Hunger Solutions. “Across the state, these schools served a combined average of over 240,000 breakfasts and 405,000 lunches to students every school day,” the report noted. When a student who is required to pay the full or reduced cost of their meal arrives in the cafeteria without funds to purchase their meal, they start to accrue school meal debt.
The problem is so bad that Fallston UMC provided relief for many families through their Christmas Miracle Campaign. This mission was selected based on the number of families for which it would make a difference, according to the Rev. Karin Walker, the church’s pastor.
Over Christmas, the church raised $25,000 which was distributed to 14 schools. The gifts ranged from less than $300 dollars to over $8,000.
Students in elementary school are not restricted for their lunch and thus accrue debt which then follows them to middle and high school. Families are informed immediately; however, they often cannot pay consistently. Once the student reaches middle school, if there is debt, they can not receive a hot lunch.
Debts were paid through the efforts of Fallston UMC for some elementary, middle and high school students.
“We hope to track the debt at these schools and provide ongoing assistance in each of them in other ways as well, as we already do for quite a few schools,” said Walker. “It’s a local mission that speaks to the hearts of many.”
She went on to say that helping families understand the benefit of free and reduced lunches is really a key to the whole issue. “Fear and suspicion are two reasons parents do not follow through,” she said. “We also believe that the drug addiction issue in Harford County dovetails with the significant debt.”
The Revs. Tiffany Patterson and Sarah Elliot, both pastors in the BWC, received a grant for alleviating school lunch debt at the Ministry Hatchery event last December. Patterson serves Cranberry and Presbury UMCs near Edgewood; Elliot serves Cokesbury Memorial in Abingdon.
The Advocacy and Action grant from the Hatchery will be used to bring in a consultant to help bring more people together to address the problem, said Patterson. The grant was for $1,000.
Patterson said that Presbury UMC simply asked a nearby school, “What’s your biggest need?” The answer was lunch debt.
“They told us that at this middle school, if a student has a lunch debt over $7.50, they cannot receive lunch,” Patterson said. “We were very concerned about that.”
That led to a group of people learning more about the issue, discovering Maryland state policies, and figuring out the best way to respond effectively. A lot of conversations were had, and many connections were made, she said. Patterson has taken a three-month sabbatical, ending March 31, to focus on this issue.
“I’m studying food insecurity among children in my county,” she said, “making connections for my churches.”
One school official, responsible for oversight of the cafeteria services at a middle school Fallston UMC helped, was in tears, said Walker. “You don’t know how much this means,” he told Walker. “The hardest days for me are when I have to look a student in the eye and take away their tray and tell them they can’t have that hot lunch today, but instead they can grab a sandwich. It breaks my heart. They just don’t understand.”