The Answer is Yes

School meals should be free for all kids all the time

School lunch debt is gross and should not exist.

Tennessee continues to allow school lunch debt to persist, despite significant resources that would and could create a free school meal program for all kids.

The state has spent $500 million for a new Titans stadium and $1.6 billion on a corporate tax giveaway.

Those two expenses alone are three times the cost of providing free school meals for all kids in Tennessee public schools.


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School lunch debt should not exist.

Not in Tennessee. And not anywhere else.

Recently, a fifth grader in Missouri raised funds to pay off the school lunch debt at his school. The fundraiser was so successful, he also was able to pay off the lunch debt for graduating seniors at his local high school.

Policymakers could end all school lunch debt – if they wanted to.

Some districts (like Nashville) have free meals for all kids. Heck, some states (like Minnesota) provide funding for free meals for all kids in school.

But more often than not, school lunch debt is a reality – and punishments for school lunch debt can include withholding diplomas or preventing students from participating in certain school activities.

The alternative is simple: feed all the kids at school for free. No questions asked.


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Will Tennessee Do the Right Thing?

Can policymakers summon the will to make school meals free for all kids?

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons is frustrated. Angry, even.

He’s been trying for years to get his fellow lawmakers to fund a plan to make school meals free for all kids.

This year, a Republican lawmaker joined the fight – sponsoring a bill similar to one Clemmons has carried in the past. Still, the bill was met with stiff resistance by legislators.

The national trend is toward schools providing meals for free for all kids.

The Tennessee trend is in favor of hundreds of millions of public dollars to fund a stadium for a private business owner and $1.6 billion for a corporate tax break.

Rather than fund school lunches, lawmakers and Gov. Lee seek annually to find new schemes that would use taxpayer money to fund unaccountable private schools.

For the past decade, the state has run budget surpluses in the range of $1-3 billion.

Rather than fund school lunches or boost teacher pay or invest in Medicaid expansion, or end the grocery tax, lawmakers have found a dizzying array of ways to reduce revenue by lowering or eliminating taxes paid by the wealthy or corporations.

The problem is so acute that Tennessee is in real danger of running a significant budget deficit in the 2025 fiscal year.

If Bill Lee ran his HVAC business this way, they’d be filing for bankruptcy.


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The Community Steps Up

Exposes massive state policy failure

In Wilson County, people are stepping up to cancel school lunch debt.

Sure, school lunch debt represents a massive policy failure. But at least this community is coming together to say kids shouldn’t leave school with debt for meals.

The action by the Wilson County community also highlights that the state can easily afford to cancel all $50 million in school lunch debt currently on the books.

Wilson County residents raised enough money – around $6000 – to cancel the lunch debt for all graduating seniors. Still, the district has some $30,000 in school lunch debt remaining.

Lawmakers have repeatedly rejected the idea of the state paying for free school meals (breakfast and lunch) for all kids. The projected cost: $714 million a year.

Half a billion for the Titans stadium? No problem!

Sitting on $700 million in TANF? Got it!

Feeding ALL kids at school every day? Nope!

That’s the policy position of Tennessee.

crop man getting dollars from wallet
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on


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TN Lawmakers Could Cancel School Lunch Debt

But that’s not on the agenda

Tweet from TN Holler

As lawmakers continue maneuvering to secure passage of legislation that would transfer hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools, they also continue ignoring a glaring need.

School lunch debt.

According to a recent article in Salon, students in K-12 public schools in Tennessee owe a total of more than $50 million in school lunch debt.

“. . . according to 2024 statistics from the Education Data Center, on a state-level, Tennessee has $51,610,062 in student lunch debt and about 285,770 food insecure students.”

If we have $144 million for school vouchers, we have $50 million to cancel school lunch debt.

The total projected cost of the voucher program at full implementation is in excess of $700 million a year.

You know what else would cost just over $700 million a year?

Providing free breakfast and lunch to all Tennessee K-12 students every day.


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Why Does School Lunch Debt Exist?

Tennessee policymakers reject efforts focused on free meals for all kids in school

Arby’s is stepping up where Tennessee lawmakers failed. The roast beef sandwich chain is providing a grant to erase school lunch debt in one Tennessee county.

Meanwhile, legislators consistently reject efforts to provide free meals to all kids at school.

Salon reports on the effort by Arby’s to erase student lunch debt:

Hawkins County Schools in Tennessee received a $16,892 grant from the Arby’s Foundation to assist with student lunch debt. The foundation, which centers on combating childhood hunger, has committed $500,000 to support approximately 200 communities in which Arby’s has a restaurant.  

Salon notes that Tennessee students carry a staggering amount of school lunch debt:

The issue of outstanding student lunch debt isn’t unique to Hawkins County; according to 2024 statistics from the Education Data Center, on a state-level, Tennessee has $51,610,062 in student lunch debt and about 285,770 food insecure students.

This despite repeated efforts by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to pass legislation that would provide some measure of free school meals to all kids.

One analysis notes that the cost to provide free school meals (breakfast and lunch) to all kids in Tennessee would be $714 million.

In a state with typical annual budget surpluses in range of $2 billion, this seems like an easy task.

Instead, the General Assembly this year is focusing on passing a corporate tax break estimated to cost $1.6 billion.


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Free Pre-K for All?

A TN School District Offers Free Meals for All

Unicoi County to offer pilot program in 2024

One Tennessee school district is taking advantage of a federal reimbursement program to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students starting in January.

Unicoi County Schools will use the Community Eligibility Provision of the USDA’s school meal program to offer meals at no cost to all students with no application required.

The move comes in a state were policymakers have considered and rejected the idea of providing free school meals to all students on multiple occasions.

It also comes in a state that has a massive budget surplus and can afford to invest more in schools – including ensuring all children at school are fed. Instead, it seems Gov. Lee and his allies will spend surplus dollars on creating a new voucher scheme.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

COVID-19 and School Nutrition

The Tennessee Department of Education tweeted that they’d received a waiver from the federal government that will allow school districts to continue school nutrition programs. Here’s more:

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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