Groton food service workers raising money to pay off student lunch debt

Groton — As of April 1, 535 students had meal accounts that were delinquent, resulting in thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the school system.

Food services director Ernie Koschmieder said he and his staff refuse to let kids suffer — make them go hungry, or embarrass them by swapping out a hot meal — because of their parents' inability to pay for breakfast and lunches.

"These are children. These are kids that should not have to know anything about money or finances," Kristina Crandall, kitchen manager at Mary Morrisson Elementary School. "They should come to school and have breakfast and lunch and learn."

And so Crandall spearheaded a new fundraising effort — though she stresses it was a team effort — for families in arrears on their breakfast and lunch accounts.

The Food Service Department recently raised $2,922 through its first-ever vendor fair, held at Fitch High School. The money will be distributed among delinquent accounts, and the fundraising will continue.

Groton food service workers are calling the initiative Feed Their Bodies. Fuel Their Minds, which materialized a few months ago.

They ended up having 32 vendors, such as LuLaRoe, Pampered Chef, Jamberry Nails, Frawsome, Dragonfly Bowties, Isagenix and Touchstone Crystal. They got gift cards to Sneekers Café, The Spot Café, Supreme Pizza, Target and more. They also received donations from local organizations such as the Groton Elks Lodge and recruited Hair Cuttery employees to have a "fun with hair" table for kids.

They had raffle baskets with themes of bowling, books, gardening, backyard fun and more. Basket donations came from different schools in Groton, and from the central office.

And the kitchen staff are not slowing down. Monday marked the first day of their Buffalo Wild Wings fundraiser, which runs until Oct. 15.

During that time, anyone who brings in the "Home Team Advantage Teammate Card" posted on the Feed Their Bodies. Fuel Their Minds Facebook page will get 10 percent of his or her bill donated to the Food Service Department. The card can be used multiple times.

The department plans to hold another vendor fair in November or December.

"This is important to our hearts," Crandall said. "This is not just a job for us; these are our careers."

A problem across the country

Koschmieder noted that a lot of families come close to qualifying for free and reduced lunch but just miss it. A family of four qualifies for free lunch and breakfast if they have a gross annual income of less than $31,980 or a reduced price meals if they have a gross income of less than $45,510.

Among the overdue lunch accounts, Koschmieder knows there are some parents abusing the system but believes that "probably 90 percent of people really, legitimately can't afford things."

According to state data, 45.2 percent of students in Groton Public Schools were eligible for free or reduced-price meals in the 2016-17 school year, compared to 35.9 percent of students statewide.

That figure is 75.7 percent in Norwich, meaning student lunch debt is "not as big of an issue here in our district," Norwich food services director Erin Perpetua said. When she checked about a month ago, student meal accounts were only behind by about $600.

That's in part because, per district policy, students are allowed to charge only three meals before they get an "Oops meal," which is charged to the district. An Oops meal might be a cheese sandwich or peanut-butter sandwich.

Cashiers don't take away trays when students come through but rather inform the servers what they can have. Perpetua said the food services department sends out letters twice per week.

"If it's a small child, like say second grade or under, we don't do it," Perpetua said. "The students are getting whatever everyone else ordered, because they're too young to comprehend."

While Norwich hasn't held any fundrasisers, Perpetua said people call saying they'd like to donate, and that some parents with funds remaining in old, inactive accounts opt to donate the money rather than receive a refund.

In Lyme-Old Lyme Public Schools, the charging policy is that students "may charge any combination of meals up to a negative balance of $9.00," and then a maximum of three alternate meals will be provided until the charges are paid.

The East Lyme policy allows charging of up to $10 and states, "Until the charges are paid, the student will only be allowed to secure the 'alternative lunch meal.'"

There are six traditional public school districts in Connecticut in which students at all schools receive free breakfast and lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision: New London, New Haven, New Britain, Bridgeport, Waterbury and Windham.

All six are Alliance Districts, meaning they are among the 33 lowest performing districts in the state.

Of the other 27 Alliance Districts, seven have some but not all district schools participating in CEP, nine are eligible to participate, 10 – including Groton – are "nearly eligible," and one is not eligible or nearly eligible.

In other states, school districts have created GoFundMe accounts to pay down student lunch debt.

The New York Times reported in March that the charity Philando Feeds the Children paid $35,000 to St. Paul Public Schools, enough to pay off the debt owed by every district student enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

The charity was named for Philando Castile, a school nutrition worker whom a police officer shot in 2016 following a traffic stop.

Washington state recently passed a law prohibiting school staff from giving an alternative meal to — or otherwise singling out — students unable to pay for their meal, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin reported.

e.moser@theday.com

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