Tri-county program seeks to erase more than $500,000 in student lunch debt

Students munch on pizza in the Summerville Elementary School cafeteria in 2016.

An effort is underway to try to diminish the more than $500,000 in school lunch debt students across the tri-county have accrued this past school year.

Starting this month, Lowcountry Blessing Box Project has initiated the “Catch Up on Lunch” program, partnering with well-known Charleston area restaurant group Queen Street Hospitality and nonprofits Charleston Restaurant Foundation and I Heart Hungry Kids, said a press release.

The program’s focus is on lunch debt in from public schools in Dorchester, Charleston and Berkeley counties.

The release said through the initiative area restaurants will feature special “spirit nights,” donating portions of their food sales to the program. Program officials are also soliciting community donations through a social media campaign.

According to Katie Dahlheim, founder of Lowcountry Blessing Box Project, the spirit nights will start April 23 and occur for five consecutive Tuesdays at Swig ‘n Swine and 82 Queen.

This past school year, debt across three school districts has exceeded $524,000, said officials with Lowcountry Blessing Box. Broken down, that amount equates to more than $136,000 in lunch debt in Dorchester District Two, $300,000-plus in Berkeley County schools and in excess of $88,000 in Charleston County School District.

According to the program’s website, Berkeley County’s debt alone is $70,000 more than the 2017-18 school year. Additionally, the highest debt for one individual student has reached nearly $300, the site reported.

But some districts aren’t entirely aware of all the program’s details. District Two Spokesperson Pat Raynor, though she praised the heart of the program, said district officials heard some information the end of last year but nothing more until the a press release this month.

“The school district always welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with organizations in our community that can provide resources for our students,” Raynor said in a statement. “We look forward to learning about the Catch Up on Lunch program as a possible support for families in need of such services.”

Raynor further explained that District Two, like a majority of school districts nationwide, offer a free-and-reduced lunch program that students and their families apply for through the federal government — specifically the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Any student lunch debt remaining at the school year’s end in District Two is handed over to a collection agency, Raynor said.

Individuals over the program point to the recent government shutdown as one of the causes they think has led to the high debt figure.

“Families are unable to keep up with the cost of school lunches,” Dahlheim said in a statement.

“Schools are forced to choose between incurring the debt or feeding their students. Since hungry students are unable to focus on their studies, most schools are choosing to give meals to students with past due balances.”

The debts not only burden schools’ budgets but also require administrations to move funds around from other vital areas — including but not limited to curriculum materials, staff development and arts programs — to cover the cost of food to try to continue feeding students.

Program officials said they also want to help lower the debt to ensure no student has to experience “lunch shaming” — having to eat a cheaper meal or no meal at all, according to the release.

have used up their school meal accounts are denied lunches, served cold or cheap food instead of a hot meal, or are sent home with stamps on their hands to remind their parents to settle their balances.

For more information or to donate online, visit the program website. Through April 1, school administrators can also apply online for funds.