School lunch crunch

With a new school year about to begin, school leaders know lunchrooms can rack up large lunch debts when student lunch accounts become delinquent, taking a bite out of school expenses.

As the school year starts up Dorchester District 2, Principal Wanda Williams says student cafeteria debt can start to add up quickly.

"If you have 200 families that owe $5 that's $1000 right there," Williams says. She says that $1,000 should go towards the needs of the school.

"What ends up happening is I have to revisit our budget and any funds we have for staff development or providing scholarships to kids to attend summer camp won't happen," Williams says.

Debi Filomarino, the Director of Nutrition and Food Services with the district, says in some cases an overdue student lunch balance could just be an oversight by a parent.

"They may be oblivious until they receive a phone call or a letter from us and at that time we work with the parents to get the application in for meal benefits," Filomarino says.

In a district with thousands of students and with some schools having at least 900 kids, she says one lunch debt can turn into many and have a much larger effect.

"That could be an additional teacher or make classroom size smaller or learning materials and that's a big hit," Filomarino says.

Taking a look at several districts across the area to see just how school lunch debt breaks down from the last school year. The largest school district, Charleston County has more than 48,000 students and had a school lunch debt of more than $80,000, and that's with about half the schools taking part in a program that allows all the students to get free meals.

Berkeley County had the most debt, more than $230,000 for their more than 34,000 students.

Dorchester District 2 had $76,000 in unpaid lunch fees for their 26,000 students.

"Hungry children cannot learn and focus so we want to make sure that every child has a meal regardless of the families ability to pay. when a debt is unpaid at the end of the year it gets turned over to a collection agency," Filomarino says.

Williams says every year for the past three years, her school, Joeseph Pye Elementary has had a school lunch debt of $10,000.

"I was looking at what we would have to forgo to take care of the balance so I decided to reach out to the community so they could see the impact beyond not just their family," Williams says.

Williams says she sent out her school's monthly newsletter through email, but this time decided it was important to share with the community what the cafeteria balance was. Not long after posting it she received a call from a parent.

Parent and local businessman Kasey King says business has been good for him. After feeling a pulling in his spirit he says he decided to pay $8,000 towards the school's lunch debt.

"Everything happens for a reason and I believe me getting on my knees and praying and hearing a voice saying give and waking up seeing an email in my inbox," King says.

Williams says she was pretty shocked.

"In 28 years of doing this, I have never heard of it being done and I have never had my school be on the receiving end of a gift," Williams says.

"We all know the salary teachers make and if that fund comes out of their pockets its going to hurt them that's why I did it," King says.

Williams says although she's grateful that her school's lunch debt this past school year was paid off, she understands the other schools and districts face this constant battle.

"Students learning to teachers ability to provide quality instruction its all connected not just about feeding kids its about teaching kids and moving kids and preparing teachers as well," Williams says.

Neither Colleton County nor Dorchester District 4 have school lunch debt because all students get free lunches in those systems because of the same program the Charleston County School District uses.

Copyright 2018 WCSC. All rights reserved.

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