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.


Questions Raised About Lee’s Tax Break Scheme

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