The Bucks Cancel Lunch Debt Coalition, made up of the Pennsylvania Debt Collective, BuxMont Democratic Socialists of America, and Lower Bucks for Change, is concerned about the deferral of student debt from 2019 to September 2022. They fear families will be hit by more money burdens.
“There’s a whole slew of pandemic-related relief efforts coming to an end, and so it’s just going to be one wave that’s going to hit people in really destructive ways,” said Jason Wozniak, a professor in the Department of foundations of education and political studies. at West Chester University.
Wozniak is one of the leading organizers of the Bucks County Lunch Debt Coalition and a member of the Pennsylvania Debt Collective, an organization campaigning to cancel all student debt.
Before the pandemic, state and county residents were weighed down by lunch debt. As of October 2021, Pennsylvania had a total of $14.9 million in student lunch debt, according to the Education Data Initiative.
Many of these indebted students do not qualify for the US Department of Agriculture’s free and reduced lunch program. According to the Education Data Initiative, as of October 2021, 87,468 college students in Pennsylvania were food insecure and ineligible for free meals.
In the Bristol Township School District, which serves 6,200 students, the total amount of student lunch debt for the 2020-21 school year was $113,085. According to the district, 922 students owe the school money, and 772 of those students owe more than $50.
According to Bristol Township School District officials, the district plans to begin collecting lunch debt in September, in accordance with its school board’s policy.
Next door, in the smaller Bristol Borough school district with 1,300 pupils, there was $22,073 in student lunch debt on the books for the 2020-21 school year. The current amount of student debt for lunch on the books is $15,875. According to the district, 212 students owe money, and 75 of them owe more than $50.
“Across the country, and especially here in Pennsylvania, we have children who are going hungry or going into debt for food as they try to get a basic education,” Wozniak said. “We live in a debt economy, which means people are forced to make ends meet by taking on massive amounts of debt. School lunch debt is another way to expose this sad reality.
The coalition began campaigning in lower Bucks County during the summer of 2021.
In September 2021, the coalition held a “Debtors’ Meeting” in Bristol’s Riverfront Park, where community members from neighboring school districts spoke about their experiences with lunch debt. Former students have spoken of how their schools have used “debt shaming” methods.
“They talked about being pulled out of line and having to go and talk to administration about why they couldn’t afford lunch and being threatened that they couldn’t graduate,” Elizabeth Lester said. Abdalla from Lower Bucks for Change. “They were in debt before they could even earn a living wage.”
In the Quakertown School District, the story was much the same. Before COVID-19, the lunch debt was around $18,000, according to the district.
In November 2019, the district planned to hire a collection agency to collect the parents’ lunch debt.
The discussion of the move has caused a lot of concern among parents – this, combined with the pandemic, has forced the district to back down.
Karen Hammerschmidt, executive director of Quakertown Community Outreach (QCO), told WHYY News the parents were ‘up in arms’
“There was a commotion in town at that time,” Hammerschmidt said.
Quakertown Community Outreach responded by raising approximately $2,000 to help pay off the debt. QCO tried to find individual parents indebted to the district, but were unsuccessful and sent the full check to the school district.
Hammerschmidt said she thought people were embarrassed.
“I think that’s why we didn’t ask anyone to ask for their own specific amount to pay back, because they just don’t want to take that chance to come out,” Hammerschmidt said.