Church program wipes out kids’ lunch debt in 9 area school districts

In just four days, a donation request by a Clayton church has blown up into a $40,000 effort that will eliminate students’ outstanding lunch debt in at least nine local school districts.

Salem Church of God Lead Pastor Steve Southards said the church was looking for “a quick project” for an ongoing series on the joy of living a generous life.

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“As a church, we want to go looking for trouble, and we want to right a wrong,” Southards said. “We want to show the love of Jesus in really tangible ways that meets the needs of people.”

The church’s Next Steps Pastor, Bob Hawker, reached out to the neighboring Northmont and Brookville school districts, which cited a combined student lunch debt of over $14,000. Southard said he wasn’t sure the church could raise that amount, but he made the appeal at last Sunday’s services.

In four days, donations surged over $40,000, with Southard saying the money came from grassroots contributions from hundreds of people, not a major donor dominating things.

Hawker started calling more and more school districts, explaining the effort, and learning that their outstanding student balances ranged from hundreds to thousands of dollars. He said the church will eliminate the student lunch debts at nine districts — Brookville, Northmont, Vandalia-Butler, New Lebanon, Milton-Union, Tri-County North, Franklin-Monroe, Troy and Kettering.

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The church is now setting aside some of the money to build an “angel fund” to help with lunch debt in the future.

“One school food service manager was pretty emotional. He said they’ve (had the debt) for so long,” Hawker said. “There was immense gratitude. Our schools spend so much of their time giving and giving, so for them to get to receive is a big deal.”

A federal provision makes all students eligible for free school lunch in the highest-poverty communities, such as Dayton and Trotwood. In other school districts, students whose families are below a certain income level qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

School districts charge other students for lunches to offset the costs of a large food service program. A recent School Nutrition Association study revealed 75% of U.S. schools had unpaid student lunch debt, as families fall behind for a variety of reasons.

Some schools allow students to continue getting a regular hot lunch while they ask parents to catch up on late payments, and others limit the student to a “basic lunch,” such as a cheese or peanut butter sandwich and milk, until the debt is paid.

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Northmont Superintendent Tony Thomas accepted a check for more than $3,000 Thursday. He said no student goes without food in his district, but sometimes cafeteria workers or teachers cover a lunch for a student whose family is behind.

“It’s nice to be in a community with a place like Salem Church of God, who obviously is doing something right, because the fruits of their generosity have really exploded.” Thomas said. “For us, the focus is the kid. The kid can’t be the victim. I don’t know what the parents’ situations are. But we deal with kids. And nobody wants to see a kid not eat.”

Southards said the church is inviting school officials and any affected families to attend the church’s March 1 services for a celebration. Like Thomas, he wanted to focus on the impact on kids, not the reasons families had fallen behind in payments.

“As a church, we want to be known by what we’re for instead of what we’re against,” he said. “We would love to be known as a church that’s for our community. … And generosity is contagious.”

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