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Within the last couple years, the student lunch debt crisis has sparked a national conversation that has criticized long upheld policies within thousands of school systems. Though there is a long way to go, one major school district has joined a shortlist of others that are now offering free lunches.

In Atlanta, the school district announced that they would be expanding the free breakfast and lunch programs to now include 77 schools, which is 17 more than last school year. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, every student who attends a district-run school or a charter school that uses the district’s food service is eligible for no-cost school meals.

This milestone comes almost 10 years after Congress passed the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which established an option for schools and school districts in low-income areas to provide free meals for students through reimbursements. AJC reported that qualifying schools must prove that 40 percent of students receive food stamp benefits, homeless services, or are enrolled in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs, in which almost 50 percent of Atlanta students met the criteria.

Atlanta was able to receive more than $20 million in reimbursements last year because of the CEP program, which allowed for this year’s expansion.

In addition to providing free lunches and minimizing the stigma that many poor students face, CEP also saves money for the district since they no longer have to print and process paperwork usually needed to pay for the free and reduced lunch programs.

The school board also decided to hire a new vendor for their meals as a huge complaint among students within the free and reduced lunch program on a national level has been the quality of the food. AJC reported that so far, Atlanta students have given positive feedback on the food they have received this school year.

Marilyn Hughes, executive director of the district’s nutrition department, noted that having a decent meal is a basic need that helps students function.

“If they’ve eaten, they will have the complete attention that they need,” she said.

Though this is great news in the fight to eliminate student lunch debt, most school districts throughout the country are still dealing with this issue.

According to CNN, of the school districts with unpaid student meal debt, 40.2% said the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year. And though the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends billions of dollars of child nutrition programs every year, school districts are not allowed to pay off student lunch debts using federal funding. But many states across the country have been fighting to make a change and have even passed laws to eliminate the shaming that many students have faced not being able to pay off their debts.

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