What if your child were unable to afford buying lunch at school? Grace Lutheran Church in Wisconsin and Liquid Church in New Jersey are two congregations that are working to relieve that burden from some students and parents in their communities. The two churches recently paid off thousands of dollars in school lunch debt.
“We see a need and react to it if we can,” said Wendy Black, who is affiliated with Grace Lutheran Church in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. “Some [students] are going without milk on some days, and some are going without lunches or owe a bunch of money for their lunches.”
Grace Lutheran took up a special offering and paid off nearly $2000 dollars in student lunch debt via funds donated by members, as well as money from its Sunday school program. Shirley Derleth is a Tomahawk middle and high school P.E. teacher, as well as a member of the church. She said, “This is an amazing example of children helping children. This is the lifelong values we hope to instill in today’s youth to not only help our community but our future.” The church has taken care of debt for students ranging from elementary to high school age.
For its part, Liquid Church (based in Parsippany, New Jersey) gave over $20,000 to pay off debt at schools in the area. Said Pastor Tim Lucas, “No child should go hungry. No child should be ashamed because their parent can’t pay for lunch.”
School Lunch Debt Across the Country
In its “2019 School Nutrition Trends Report,” the School Nutrition Association (SNA) found that having “unpaid student meal debt is common.” That was from a survey of almost 800 school districts across the country. Some districts do offer the option of free or reduced-price meals if students qualify. However, completing the paperwork can be a challenge, found education reporter Elsa Gillis in a story on school lunch debt in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area. And then there are still students who do not qualify for such meals. School lunch debt is higher in regions that do not offer reduced-cost options.
SNA found that when student lunch debt is paid, the most common source of those funds is charitable contributions. Said the SNA, “Cited by 55.4 percent, charitable contributions is followed by school district general funds (36.2 percent) and obtaining payments from the parents/students that incurred the debt (21.9 percent).” The SNA also found that an “increase is the most common situation across most segments” and that only 10 percent of school districts saw a decrease in lunch debt when comparing the 2017/18 school year to the 2018/19 school year.
School Lunch Debt Takes a Toll on People.
A young woman who accrued lunch debt when she was growing up told Gillis, “It causes a lot of anxiety because you go up to the front and they ask you to pay and you don’t have the money…It’s very embarrassing because kids are not nice. And you feel like everybody looked down on you for it. It’s painful.”
It is not just students who feel the pain of school lunch debt. Parents are also burdened by not being able to provide for their children, and school districts are struggling with how to resolve debt without denying children daily meals. Some districts have even faced criticism by penalizing students who have debt, for example, by withholding student diplomas or threatening to notify child protective services.
So when churches alleviate the burden of school lunch debt, they are ministering to a variety of needs. Said Derleth, “It comes back tenfold in how wonderful we feel being able to impact other people. I think that to me is a lesson that you don’t need to be rich and famous to do it, you just need to have the caring in your heart to know that you’re able to help anyone when asked.”