Until recently, more than 100 elementary students enrolled in two DeKalb Central Schools owed about $1,000 for unpaid lunches.
Two donations totaling $1,705 cleared that debt.
“DeKalb Central Schools is lucky enough to have a community that continuously cares and generously gives to our students,” Food Service Director Ashlee Baron said via email.
“Since being in the director position for the last four years,” she added, “we have received both anonymous and named monetary donations during each holiday season to pay towards student meal debts.”
Even with the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, which provide free and reduced-price meals to eligible students, children can still accrue debt over unpaid food. Those ineligible for free meals sometimes don't have money in their account or on hand.
Nationwide data from the 2010-11 academic year show the issue is widespread. Nearly 60 percent of surveyed school food authorities – which can be but aren't necessarily school districts – incurred unpaid meal costs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported in multiple documents, including one as recently as 2017.
“There are many families who are working two jobs and who maybe are just above that cutoff line to qualify for those kinds of services,” said Tonya Weaver, superintendent of the Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community School District.
The federal government recognizes that families' inability to pay for food creates a tough situation for students and the schools relying on payments.
“It is very difficult for school food professionals when a hungry child shows up in the cafeteria without the funds needed to pay for a meal,” according the USDA's 2016 report to Congress about the topic.
Districts participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs are required to have a written procedure addressing such situations. School system policies vary.
Students might receive an alternative lunch, usually unflavored milk, a cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a fruit or vegetable, the USDA reported.
That's what Fort Wayne Community Schools did before offering free meals districtwide. Elementary and middle school students have been provided no-cost meals since 2014. The program expanded to the high schools this academic year.
“If students went through the line and didn't have money to pay for it, they would be given an alternate lunch of peanut butter and jelly or cheese and crackers at no cost,” spokeswoman Krista Stockman said of the previous practice, noting that the district absorbed those expenses. “Not a great lunch, but better than nothing.”
When it happened repeatedly, Stockman said, the school would ensure that parents knew the situation couldn't continue and offered to help with financial assistance forms.
Students, however, wouldn't always embrace free or reduced-price meals because of the stigma, Stockman said.
Since expanding the no-cost meal program districtwide, she said, Fort Wayne's high schools are experiencing “a significant increase” in students taking breakfast and the full lunch.
“It puts all kids on equal footing,” Stockman said.
The USDA discourages lunch shaming tactics – practices that embarrass students who cannot pay for meals, such as using stickers to identify those with meal charges. It instead supports such approaches as providing multiple payment options and reminding families about low balances through phone calls, text messages or emails.
The federal study about meal program policies and practices – which was prompted by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act – found that nearly every school food authority in 2011-12 worked to recover unpaid meal costs through various methods, including billing parents, but only 14 percent recouped all revenue initially lost.
On average, the survey found, the net revenue lost in the 2010-11 year was small – less than 1 percent of the year's total expenditures.
Schools may use alternative funding sources – including community funding, angel funds and school fundraisers – to offset costs, but those aren't long-term solutions, the USDA reported in 2017.
Food service staffers at Garrett-Keyser-Butler have raised lunch money through bake sales and other activities at community events for students unable to pay, said Weaver, the superintendent. She credits these efforts for increased awareness about school lunch debt.
“We're having more and more people knowing that's a need in our community,” Weaver said.
In DeKalb Central, a community member generated $1,500 through fundraising efforts that began on Giving Tuesday, and Wells Fargo Advisors in Fort Wayne raised $205 through their annual charity giving campaign, said Baron, the food service director. The contributions benefited McKenney-Harrison and Country Meadow elementary schools.
The donations are important to students because they show the students are supported in and out of the classroom, Baron said.
“It teaches them compassion for others, being future-ready individuals who are ready to make a difference just like the community has done for them,” Baron said.
Former northeast Indiana residents Rachel Bennett Steury and her husband, Mat, last year donated what they would have spent on Christmas gifts for nieces and nephews to school districts with student lunch debt – Garrett-Keyser-Butler, DeKalb Central Schools and Hamilton Community Schools.
The couple, who now live in California, were inspired by Philando Feeds the Children, a campaign that paid off children's unpaid school meals in memory of Philando Castile. He was fatally shot by police in Minnesota in 2016.
Bennett Steury was surprised by the figures provided by the districts: 600 students collectively owed $7,200.
“It was shocking to me,” Bennett Steury said. “You're a second-grader, and you're in debt already. How does that happen?”
She and her husband helped 176 students with outstanding debt, she said.
Donors in Southwest Allen County Schools usually have an affiliation with the district, such as family members who teach or are enrolled there, and they sometimes request that their contribution be made anonymously, said Brant Brown, food services director.
Tony Cassel, the Hamilton superintendent, said outside donations are less common than donations from people within the district, such as teachers and administrators.
Bennett Steury's nieces and nephews liked that their Christmas present money helped someone else.
“They got the gift of giving for Christmas,” Bennett Steury said, describing it as a teachable moment about a problem that school districts face.
“It's something I would hope other people would have an interest in doing as well.”