WASHINGTON, DC – Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Fetterman, along with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Peter Welch (D-VT), last week introduced the School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act to cancel student lunch debt nationwide.
“‘School lunch debt’ is a term so absurd that it shouldn’t even exist. That’s why I’m proud to introduce this bill to cancel the nation’s student meal debt and stop humiliating kids and penalizing hunger,” said Senator Fetterman. “It’s time to come together and stop playing political games with American’s access to food. September is Hunger Action Month and I’m proud to be introducing this bill to help working families now, while we work to move our other priorities to combat food insecurity in our nation.”
“No child in Rhode Island – or anywhere in America – should be penalized for not being able to afford school lunch. It’s that simple,” said Senator Whitehouse. “Our legislation will eliminate lunch debt in schools, supporting every child’s access to a healthy meal and positioning them for long-term success.”
“Our students shouldn’t have to worry about how they’re paying for lunch – full stop. I’m proud to partner with my colleagues Senators Fetterman and Whitehouse on this commonsense bill, and urge my colleagues to stand with us,” said Senator Welch. “We have a duty to ensure that every student – in Vermont, and across America – is supported and respected.”
During the height of COVID-19 in 2020, federal lawmakers made the unprecedented move of providing free lunch for every public-school student in America. This program expired last fall, but many states have been rolling out their own universal free school meals programs and seen sizable results. Even schools that don’t offer free meals usually won’t turn away hungry students. Instead, they will feed them and collect payment later, leading to “school lunch debt.”
There are over 30 million children in the U.S. who can’t afford their school meals and the national public school meal debt is a whopping $262 million a year. In Pennsylvania alone, there are nearly half a million food insecure children who collectively owe nearly $80 million in debt. Meanwhile, child poverty in the United States more than doubled last year, while the average household income declined. This bill will ease the financial burden on working families by directing the USDA to pay for all debts owed to schools for lunch or breakfast programs.
As Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research, fighting food insecurity is one of Senator Fetterman’s main priorities. The School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act is one step in a larger effort to do so.
In June, Senator Fetterman was one of just four Democrats to vote against the debt limit bill because of its harmful cuts to SNAP and has promised to oppose any legislation that worsens food insecurity. He has also introduced legislation to combat this issue, including the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023 to provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student, and the Food Secure Strikers Act of 2023 to allow striking workers to qualify for SNAP benefits. He additionally supports expanding community eligibility provisions to allow schools in low-income areas to serve free meals to all their students.