Groups aim to reduce more than $500,000 in student lunch debt

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Local nonprofits and groups started a new fundraising effort to tackle the issue of hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt from student lunches.

The Lowcountry Blessing Box Project partnered with I Heart Hungry Kids, Queen Street Hospitality Group and the Charleston Restaurant Foundation to create the “Catch Up on Lunch” fundraising program.

The groups are hoping to raise money through fundraisers with local restaurants where a portion of the money made will be supposedly donated to schools.

Lunch debt in Tri-county school districts totals more than $500,000.

Charleston County School District currently has $100,455.25 in school meal debt.

A spokesperson from Dorchester District Two said on Tuesday the district’s lunch debt totals $136,6087.29.

Berkeley County School District’s last update on the school lunch debt amounted to about $302,000.

“Think about what that could go towards," Catch Up on Lunch organizer McKensie Kish said. "Teacher salaries, additional teacher positions, overpopulated schools with everybody moving to Charleston.”

A spokesperson from all three Tri-county school districts said the district has not officially partnered with the organization yet because they need more information first.

“It is very important to the leadership at BCSD that we closely vet any organization that will use the district name/logo, etc., to raise funds in our community,” BCSD spokesperson Katie Tanner said. “While the cause may be very noble, we still have a responsibility to the public to ensure that any organization that raises funds for the stated purpose of donating to the district’s general fund is legitimate.”

“Outstanding student meal balances are an ongoing challenge for district schools with thousands of dollars of debt accrued each year," Dorchester District Two spokesperson Pat Raynor said. "The school district always welcomes the opportunity to collaborate with organizations in our community that can provide resources for our students. We look forward to learning about the Catch Up on Lunch program as a possible support for families in need of such services.”

Several school district representatives also told me they’re worried about the campaign’s website mentioning “lunch shaming.” That’s when students are denied lunch, served cold or cheap food, or given stickers to wear home because of debt they have.

Berkeley and Charleston representatives told me that is not something they practice at any of their schools.

“BCSD does not practice any form of lunch shaming," Tanner said. "If we have families unable to support the cost of breakfast/lunch, we do have free and reduced lunch forms available all year to our families. We have 11 Community Eligibility Provision Schools. All students at H.E. Bonner Elementary, Cross Elementary, College Park Elementary, St. Stephen Elementary, J.K. Gourdin Elementary, Macedonia Middle, Cainhoy Elementary, College Park Middle, St. Stephen Middle, Timberland High and Cross High may participate in the breakfast and lunch program at no charge to them.”

But Kish said the biggest goal of the new program is to help families in need.

“Being in the restaurant industry, feeding people is our passion," Kish said. "And just thinking that there are some families out there that are even just having a hard time buying lunch for their kids, it’s really heart breaking.”

The groups are encouraging school administrators to apply for funds on the Catch Up on Lunch website by April 1.

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