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How readers paid off every student lunch debt in Austin, for now

Last week, every student lunch debt in the Austin school district was cleared, thanks to more than $18,000 in donations.

That meant 3,500 students went to school before the long holiday weekend and had the option to get whatever meal they wanted in the cafeteria line. That meant 3,500 students didn’t have to carry home a note to their parents, reminding them of the debt they had accrued simply by getting a hot meal at school.

Before I tell you how this fundraising campaign went viral, let me give you a little back story about student lunch debt and why it’s in the news.

Around the country, millions of students are enrolled in a free/reduced lunch program that either partially or entirely covers the cost of their lunch and sometimes breakfast at school. But plenty of other students either haven’t applied for the program or their parents make too much money to qualify but still struggle to pay off their lunch account.

Of the 80,000 meals served through the Austin district each day, about 700 of them are “courtesy” meals — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk and a vegetable for elementary students, and a salad and milk in middle and high schools — for students whose balance has fallen below zero.

Those mealsadd up to $350,000 per yearthat the food service department tries to absorb into its budget. In some states, schools are allowed to require students to work off those unpaid meals.

Even without being called out in front of your peers as poor, there’s still a fair amount of shame in not having the same options as your friends. And eating a meal not of your own choosing, day after day, can feel demoralizing.

As news around school lunch debt spread — New Mexico garnered headlines earlier this month as the most recent stateto outlaw the practice of forcing kidsto clean tables or otherwise “earn” their lunch, often in humiliating ways — I started hearing from readers who askedhow they mightpay off a low-income student’s lunch balance.

So, I reached out to the Austin district to ask if dropping off checks at an individual school was the only way to do this. It turns out the nutrition and food services department already hada digital donation driveset up through a website called EdBacker. Community members had been interested in donating to pay off student lunch debt for several months, and they’d raised about $1,300 of a $10,000 goal.

But then something happened.

The post we published on went viral, with media outlets around Texas picking up on news of the quickly rising fundraising total and how residents in other communities, including San Antonio, might help. Within 24 hours, the Austin district met its $10,000 goal, and by the end of the week, readers had donated nearly $20,000 to help pay off student lunch debt.

“The EdBacker was set up to create an easy way for people to help out across the entire district, which also helps to offset the donations that may be more plentiful in neighborhoods with more resources,” says Anneliese Tanner, director of the district’s nutrition and food services department. “We’re very appreciative of the generous support of the community to help us expand healthy food access, and although this funding helps with the current need, negative balances are an ongoing issue, as they accrue daily. Our primary focus is ensuring no student goes without a balanced meal, regardless of their account balance and payment status.”

As the Austin district total inched higher, readers asked how they might help other Central Texas districts. I reached out to nine area school districts to find out how they handle student debt and how readers can donate if they’d like to help pay it off. This doesn’t cover every district in Central Texas, but it gives you a sense of how various schools handle school lunch debt and, in some cases, options for donating.

You’ll notice that none of these districts have set up a digital fundraising page, which I think was the key to Austin’s success. You can always check back with your local school to see if there’s a debt you can help pay. You could also organize with your neighborhood or co-workers to pay off an entire school’s lunch debt. You might have to walk into the school to drop off a check to make the donation, but there are almost always students who could use it.

Crowdfunding is not an ideal way to handle the problem of poverty and food access in America, but it’s a short-term solution that, without a doubt, will brighten someone’s day.

Del Valle: Students can have a negative balance for up to six meals, and after that, they are provided an alternative meal for free, according to a school representative. All 11,000 students in the district are offered free breakfast. If you want to help reduce the number of delinquent accounts there, mail a check to 5301 Ross Road, Del Valle, TX, 78617.

Hays: Hays Consolidated Independent School District accumulates between about $10,000 and $20,000 in unpaid lunch balances. Students get a $10 grace period to give people time to get their balances paid while the student still gets the regular meal options. After that, the student receives the alternative meal: a sandwich, unlimited salad and a choice of a hot vegetable from the serving line. From a rep: “Currently, we do not have a system for people to donate money to pay off lunch balances, but we have had several people reach out to find out how they can donate. We are looking at the logistics and hope to be able to offer a donation option soon.”

Eanes: In one of the wealthiest school districts in Central Texas, student lunch debt accrues after a student has had two regular meals in the grace period (and free alternative meals after that). But at the end of the year, the debts are cleared, either by payment from the families or, in a kind gesture, the parents of graduating seniors. If you’d like to contribute, you can drop off money at any Eanes school or by check mailed to Child Nutrition office, 601 Camp Craft Road, Austin, TX, 78746.

Manor: With a free/reduced lunch population of 80 percent, the Manor school district doesn’t have a high lunch debt number because many of the students receive the meal for free or at a lower cost already. If an account hits zero, students can charge two meals, and then they get an alternative meal, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk, according to a school rep. He also pointed out that Manor provides an optional free breakfast to every student in the district every day, all year long, and thatthey are crowdfundinga number of other school projects and programs.

Round Rock: In Round Rock, students can charge two meals after they run out of money in their account, and then after that they receive a cheese sandwich and milk for 80 cents, the cost of which continues to accrue with each meal. To help pay off some of those balances, you can stop by a school to drop off a check or send one to the administration office, 16255 Great Oaks Drive, Suite 100, Round Rock, TX,78681.

Elgin: The past two school years have ended with between $2,000 and $3,000 in student debt in Elgin, spread among several hundred students. From a rep: “EISD allows the student to charge their meal up to three days, and after that they are given a peanut butter or cheese sandwich and milk at no cost.” If you’d like to help offset that annual debt that the district has to absorb, you can mail a check to the administration office: 1002 N. Avenue C, Elgin, TX, 78621.

Georgetown: Georgetown has seen an increase in school lunch debt, in part because ofHB 3562, which passed in 2014 and requires districts to provide a grace period when they continue to charge for the meals while attempting to collect the accrued balance. A rep said this has caused their cumulative debt to increase from $3,000 to $21,000. They offer a courtesy meal of a cheese sandwich and milk, for which the student is charged 75 cents. The rep said that Office Depot employees have raised money to help pay off students’ negative balances at three Georgetown schools.

Lake Travis: Unpaid lunch debt isn’t a big deal in Lake Travis, which finished last year’s school year with $154.93 in unpaid debt, according to a school rep. They have a lower number of free/reduced lunch students than many area districts, but about 80 percent of students use the cafeteria services in some way, which is high. I chatted with Traci Miller, the director of the district’s food services department, and she credits that to the appealing a la carte choices and how they track full meals versus snacks or other add-ons that students might buy in the cafeteria line.

Bastrop: In Bastrop, students can charge up to $5 in meals; after that, they get an alternative meal that is free. No one has contacted the school about paying off lingering student debt, according to a district rep, but any such offers would be welcome. You can mail checks to 906 Farm St., Bastrop, TX, 78602.

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