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Garage sales and GoFundMe campaigns are nice, but districts want better fix for school lunch debt

A Boulder mom raised more than $40,000 to pay off debt from school lunches that district students ate but couldn’t pay for, even garnering a hefty donation on the Rachael Ray Show.

A teacher at Denver’s McGlone Academy raised $525 this spring to help feed students at her school.

An Eastern Colorado woman organized a community garage sale, restaurant donations, and an online drive to raise $3,600 to cover lunch debt in the rural Bennett district.

In Colorado and the rest of the country, fundraisers to cover the cost of school meals are popping up as district officials struggle to balance their desire to feed hungry children with their responsibility to pay the food bills. The online fundraising site GoFundMe lists nearly 70 such meal debt campaigns, with names like “Phil-lunch-thropy,” “ and “Let the Kids Eat.”

Such efforts are often fueled by worries that children who can’t pay for lunch will be given a meager snack, cold sandwich, or have their hot lunch thrown out — practices known as lunch-shaming. Some school food service leaders, while grateful for community campaigns to cover the debt, don’t see fundraisers as a viable answer to what they say is a larger fundamental problem.

“The system is broken,” said Ann Cooper, food service director for Boulder Valley School District. “What we really need is universal meals.”

She said parents, no matter their income, aren’t asked to pay for other parts of public school, like English or math class, so school lunch should be no exception.

“It’s clear that hungry kids can’t learn,” she said. “If we are setting up a system where kids can’t get fed … What does that say about our country?”

Boulder Valley has around $200,000 in lunch debt accrued over several years.

Bennett Superintendent Robin Purdy described the lunch debt fundraiser there as a “godsend” for her 1,100-student district, but also said, “I don’t know how sustainable it would be in the long run.”

She’d also like to see free school meals for all kids — something she believes industrious food service leaders could figure out if there was less government interference in the school lunch program.

While practices around lunch debt vary in Colorado’s 178 school districts, many provide a hot lunch to students even if they can’t pay for it. Denver, Colorado’s largest district, adopted such a policy in 2017 after previously giving students with negative lunch balances a cheese sandwich or graham crackers and milk. Boulder Valley also provides hot lunches regardless of a student’s ability to pay.

In Bennett, 30 miles east of Denver, students who can’t pay for lunch sometimes get a cheese sandwich, milk and a piece of fruit. But more often, their negative lunch balances don’t come to light until they’ve already picked up a hot lunch and gotten to the end of the lunch line. When that happens, students are always allowed to keep the meal, Purdy said.

Negative lunch balances haven’t been an issue in Bennett this spring, thanks to Marie Murillo-Giger, who spearheaded the drive to wipe out the district’s lunch debt last winter. The $3,600 she raised covered the district’s lunch debt of $2,200 with the remainder earmarked for any additional debt accrued through the rest of the school year.

Murillo-Giger, a product manager for a travel company whose husband teaches in a district near Bennett, said she was motivated to raise money after reading heartbreaking news stories about children who had their lunch trays thrown out or didn’t get lunch at all because they couldn’t pay.

Such stories hit close to home for Murillo-Giger who remembers the embarrassment of having a different color meal ticket as a kid because she qualified for free lunch. When her family got bumped to “reduced-price lunch” status one year because their income increased slightly, she remembers her mother crying with worry when she got the letter.

In Colorado, the state covers the 40-cent co-pay for elementary and middle school students who are eligible for reduced-price lunches, and a new law establishes the same help for high-schoolers starting next fall.

Still, many educators and advocates worry about families who miss the cutoff for government subsidized meals but still struggle financially. Overdue lunch accounts often fall to the bottom of household priorities when it’s a matter of paying the rent or keeping the lights on, they say.

One problem for school leaders is there’s no way to know how many families fall into that category.

In Denver this year, $405,000 in lunch debt — the equivalent of around 162,000 lunches and a more than 30-fold increase from the year before it stopped collecting on unpaid accounts — came from “paid” families who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Taylor Washington, of the statewide advocacy group Hunger Free Colorado, said it’s hard to know the financial means of such families.

“We don’t have a way to measure if those families are able to pay or just haven’t submitted a free- and reduced (-price) lunch form,” she said.

Sixty-five percent of the Denver’s 92,000 students qualify for government-subsidized meals this year, down 2 percentage points from 2017-18. It’s a decrease district officials attribute partly to the new lunch policy, which they say disincentivizes families from applying for subsidized meals.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement for Denver’s nutrition services program, worries about the impact of the district’s growing lunch debt. The year before Denver began guaranteeing a hot lunch to any student regardless of their ability to pay, the debt total was just $13,000.

“If families don’t pay their fair share, the district has to find money in our budget to pay that off … because we cannot carry a debt,” Peña said.

In addition to the $405,000 in debt this year, another $70,000 in lunch debt came from families who do qualify for subsidized meals, but may not have applied for the program until part way through the school year. The district has already paid off that smaller sum with money earmarked to help low-income families, she said.

Some school leaders in Colorado say the federal government’s income threshold for determining free and reduced-price meal eligibility in the continental United States contributes to the lunch debt issue.

“It’s same whether you live in rural Arkansas or San Francisco,” said Cooper, of Boulder Valley.

If it was adjusted to account for the higher cost of living in some cities and states, that might help more students qualify and eliminate some meal debt, she said.

Other advocates say more school districts could sign onto a voluntary federal program that provides universal free meals to all students in high-poverty schools or districts.

Schools or entire districts are eligible for what’s called the Community Eligibility Provision if 40 percent or more of their students are identified as low-income because they receive certain types of government benefits such as SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program), or are classified as homeless, migrant or in foster care.

Of 32 eligible Colorado districts, 21 participate, most of them small rural districts. Neither Denver, Boulder Valley, nor Bennett meet the criteria to participate districtwide.

In some districts, including Aurora, Harrison and Pueblo City Schools, one or more schools provide universal free meals though the program.

Even if the Community Eligibility program gradually expands, the problem of mounting lunch debt and the accompanying flurry of fundraisers likely won’t go away.

“In the end, the goal is that every child gets to eat and that it’s not a burden on families, but how do you make that happen?” said Murillo-Giger. “That’s a million-dollar question.”