Tennessee Republicans squashed free meal bills. Arby's stepped in to cover some student lunch debt

Arby's fast food restaurant Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Hawkins County Schools in Tennessee received a $16,892 grant from the Arby’s Foundation to assist with student lunch debt. The foundation, which centers on combating childhood hunger, has committed $500,000 to support approximately 200 communities in which Arby’s has a restaurant.

“Hawkins County Schools are humbled with the selection by the foundation to help with this need, which otherwise would have to be paid from district budget funds,” Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson said in a March 7 meeting with the Hawkins County Board of Education. “The Arby’s Foundation has stepped up to provide a need in an area that others never think about, and we greatly appreciate their generosity.”

The issue of outstanding student lunch debt isn't unique to Hawkins County; according to 2024 statistics from the Education Data Center, on a state-level, Tennessee has $51,610,062 in student lunch debt and about 285,770 food insecure students. However, this recent grant comes in the wake of several Tennessee Republican lawmakers blocking bills that would provide kids free meals in schools.

Back in November, GOP Rep. John Ragan argued that federal funds to feed children from low-income families should not be accepted unless they can substantially help improve test scores. “The question that is, in the top of my mind, is how — we get this money that’s supposedly aimed at the most needy students and the lowest performing students,” Ragan said in a video clip posted by The Tennessee Holler. “What’s the measure of improvement? For this money coming in? How much has it improved the performance of these students?”

The Associated Press reported in February that fourteen GOP-led states turned down federal money to feed low-income children in the summer. States cited philosophical objections to welfare programs, technical challenges due to old computer systems and the inclusion of other summer nutrition programs as reasons to opt out.Tennessee opted into the Summer EBT program for 2024 but doesn’t plan to continue in 2025.