Congress ended the free-lunch-for-all program a few months ago. Now, in order for students to qualify for free lunch, a family of four must earn $36,000 a year or less.
Many children don't qualify but still can't afford meals. Several schools still provide meals for these students, requiring them to pay later and creating a debt many families cannot pay down.
"Without the free school meals for all, the school district is really in the need of money to pay for these meals because where is this money going to come from?” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance.
Results from a new national survey by the School Nutrition Association show 847 schools are owed $19.2 million in lunch debt since the school year began. For some children, the debt can get so big that schools stop giving them a full meal.
“This whole idea with alternative lunch is you're still giving them food, why not give them a whole meal? I look at it this way: you have a hungry child and a hungry angry child,” Wilson said.
Wilson says universal school meals can also promote academic achievement, keep kids healthier, and reduce "lunch shaming."
“Imagine if you are 13-14 years old, coming through the cafeteria with your friends, and all of a sudden, they take a tray from you or they dump a tray in front of you, and then, they give you an alternative lunch. Just think, emotionally, what they are doing to kids in this country when we do that to them,” she stated.
A number of bills in the US House and Senate have been put forward to make universal free meals permanent, but none have passed.