(CNN)From college applications to bullying to drills for possible school shootings, students already have enough on their plate without having to worry about affording lunch.
After a Rhode Island school district recently prompted public outcry for giving cold meals to students who hadn’t paid for lunches, yogurt company Chobani stepped in to relieve some of the financial pressure.But Warwick Public Schools, which said it cracked down after accumulating $77,000 in lunch debt, was not alone in its predicament. Across the country, this issue keeps popping up. Last month, a lunchroom employee in New Hampshire was fired for allowing a student to take food and pay the school back the next day. And in Minnesota, one high school attempted to prevent students from attending the graduation ceremony if they had lunch debt.Three-fourths of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, the School Nutrition Association said. And most of them aren’t as lucky as Warwick to receive such a generous donation.Read MoreStudent meal debt is a growing issueFamilies’ inability to pay for school lunches is becoming an increasing problem.Of the school districts with unpaid student meal debt, 40.2% said the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year, SNA found.Though the median amount of unpaid student meal debt for school districts is $2,500, there’s significant variance. School districts reported debt ranging from the single digits to more than $856,000, SNA said. Photos: What school lunch looks like around the world Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldChildren enjoy lunch, including meat and vegetables, at the Kolno village school in Belarus, a landlocked country in Eastern Europe. Experts say that eating well-balanced meals can benefit a child’s cognitive functioning and performance in school.Hide Caption 1 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldStudents eat a free lunch, consisting of rice and traditional dishes, at Yuanbao school in Guizhou, a mountainous province in southwest China. Free lunch has been sponsored by the central government since 2011 to improve students’ nutrition. Previously, students in poor rural communities either didn’t eat or ate only small amounts of food. School feeding programs are ubiquitous across high-, middle- and low-income countries, experts say.Hide Caption 2 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldChildren receive a hot meal provided by the humanitarian organization World Food Programme at a rural school in the city of Adama, also called Nazret or Nazareth, in central Ethiopia. Many of the students walk for an hour or two to school every morning, and in some cases, they attend school because of the free meals.Hide Caption 3 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldTwo boys eat fish and chips for lunch in the canteen at Fettes College, a private boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland. Across countries, how much time children have during their lunch periods can influence how much of a balanced meal they may consume.Hide Caption 4 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldStudents enjoy lunch, including rice and beans, at Hanka Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya. The lunch was provided by the Chinese public welfare project Free Lunch for Children. About 1,100 students at five primary schools in the area benefit from the program.Hide Caption 5 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldLunch involves traditional dishes at the Karachi Footpath School in the province of Sindh in Pakistan. The school provides lunch for free to all students before they leave at 1 p.m.Hide Caption 6 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldA woman serves food to children in a school canteen in Wales. Potatoes, pizza and other dishes are on the menu. Meanwhile, a spotlight has been turned on what children eat for lunch in wake of a rising obesity epidemic among the world’s youth. In the United Kingdom, obesity is estimated to affect about one in every five children aged 10 to 11. Hide Caption 7 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldMiddle school students enjoy lunch outdoors in Lima, Peru. Many children pack lunches brought from home that include juice boxes, fruit and traditional dishes.Hide Caption 8 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldA school girl eats lunch, consisting of rice and stew, at Senzoku Elementary School in Tokyo, Japan. In Japan, many students serve each other lunch and enjoy their meals in relaxed environments in the classroom.Hide Caption 9 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldStudents eat lunch at David Brink Primary School in Rustenburg, South Africa, where the number of students benefiting from the school’s feeding program jumped from 65 to 185 students within a four-month period in 2014. During that time, many local mine workers and their families were under a lot of financial strain.Hide Caption 10 of 11 Photos: What school lunch looks like around the worldA child eats lunch, including couscous, meat and vegetables, at a municipal school in the city of Bordeaux, France. Parents of pupils in the area are more worried about the plastic plates students are eating on than the actual lunch itself. Parents have asked for a return to traditional dishes as they are concerned about the presence of certain chemicals on the plates.Hide Caption 11 of 11“The gap ranges very widely, and what we’re finding is that some districts are really experiencing very high debt accruals,” SNA’s Diane Pratt-Heavner said. Starting in July 2017, the US Department of Agriculture required schools to develop plans for students who have insufficient funds to pay for their meals. And although the USDA spends more than $22 billion a year on child nutrition programs, it prohibits schools from using federal funds to pay off meal debt. “Once that debt is considered uncollectible … then the school district is required to pay off the debt, and that would have to come from general funds,” Pratt-Heavner said. This means that schools already strapped for cash have to take out money for educational activities and materials to cover lunch money. But schools are attempting to address the problemSome states, including New Mexico, California, Oregon and Iowa, have passed laws prohibiting schools from singling out students and “shaming” them for having unpaid charges. For example, some schools stamped students’ hands or had them complete chores.Alternative meals such as the sun-butter-and-jelly sandwiches offered in Rhode Island, however, fall in a gray area. While some say alternative lunches allow schools to provide students a meal at a lower cost, critics say they still make kids feel self-conscious.A Warwick, Rhode Island, business owner set up donation jars to ease the debt.To combat rising unpaid meal debt, schools have taken steps to make the payment process more transparent by improving online payment and account balance monitoring systems, SNA said. In addition, they have ramped up efforts to encourage families to complete free and reduced-price applications. Schools have also have turned to crowdfunding and private donations to provide financial assistance. For example, one Seattle dad set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to cover lunch debt, raising more than $50,000. And a charity run in Philando Castile’s name has spent tens of thousands of dollars to wipe out lunch debt of students in Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, where the late nutrition supervisor worked.Low-income families can receive financial assistanceAlthough the average price of a middle school lunch is $2.68, the cost can add up for families, especially those with several children.Kids from low-income families can receive assistance, though not all families apply and some are deemed ineligible.Students from families whose incomes are at or below 130% of the poverty level qualify for free school meals. Children whose family incomes are between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. For the 2018-19 school year, 130% of the poverty level was $32,630 for a family of four, according to SNA.However, SNA believes the federal government should provide free meals to all students. The federal government offers universal school lunches in some areas, including New York City and Dallas, if a majority of the student body is eligible for assistance.”Providing universal free school meals would not only address this issue of unpaid meal charges, but it would recognize the fact that … having a healthy meal in the middle of the day is necessary to school achievement,” Pratt-Heavner said. “Hungry kids cannot learn.”