Chandler ministry wipes out school-lunch debt The Chandler Arizonan

Chandler ministry wipes out school-lunch debt

Chandler ministry wipes out school-lunch debt
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By Kevin Reagan

Arizonan Staff Writer

 

A Chandler youth ministry is trying to ensure every student has access to food by paying off outstanding lunch debts at local schools. 

Angel Army, a ministry focused on music education, recently donated enough funds to three Chandler Unified schools that would pay for up to 1,100 meals. 

William Gates, Angel Army’s treasurer, said his organization’s been making cash donations to Hancock Elementary, Willis Junior High, and Andersen Junior High over the last couple months and hopes to make more contributions to other schools in the future. 

The ministry wanted to address this issue locally, Gates said, after hearing national news reports about children being shamed for not having money to pay for lunch. 

“We’re here to help the kids in the aspect of getting them that healthy lunch,” he said. “That might be the only meal that they have a day depending on their situation.”

Though Angel Army was founded in 2014 as a resource for young musicians, Gates said the organization attempts to help local youth in a variety of ways.

 Reliable access to nutrition is a critical need for every child, he added, and shouldn’t be a concern for them during the school day. 

Unresolved lunch debts in public schools have been getting more attention in recent years after a number of troubling media reports detailed incidents of students having their lunch trays snatched away by officials because of their cafeteria debts. 

A recent survey of 570 school districts from across the country found that they had a combined meal debt of $11 million. Most districts said donations from the community are the biggest source of income for resolving these debts. 

Fifty-five percent of the nation’s school-lunch debts are paid down by charitable donations, according to research done by the School Nutrition Association. 

The association further discovered a district’s lunch debt decreases as its percentage of low-income students who qualify for meal subsidies increases. 

About 20 percent of Chandler Unified students qualify for school-lunch assistance from the federal government, according to Jenny Bracamonte, the district’s director of food and nutrition. 

Chandler’s quite lucky to be in the financial situation that it’s in, Bracamonte said, because the district’s lunch debts usually accumulate to a relatively small amount and have not become a major problem. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not allow school districts to use federal dollars to pay off lunch debts – meaning districts may have to dip into its general fund to wipe away negative balances. 

Donations from the public help CUSD from having to pull money out of other funds to relieve lunch debts, Bracamonte said, making the debts much more manageable. 

The district’s Food Services Department saw its revenues increase by more than $1 million during the last fiscal year due to a 4-percent boost in lunch sales. 

CUSD workers serve up to 31,000 meals every day at the district’s 42 campuses. 

 The way Chandler Unified students get their food has expanded beyond just cafeteria trays – the district has a food truck rotating around various campuses and coffee bars operating out of the high schools. 

Bracamonte said the district’s been consciously making an effort to attract more students to the lunch room by appealing to their modern tastes. 

A couple years ago, CUSD changed how it treats students who had unpaid meal debts. Before 2018, the district’s policy was to give students an alternative meal if their account balance was in the red – making their debt noticeable to their classmates. 

The district has stopped giving skimpy, alternative lunches, Bracamonte said, and will allow students to continue receiving regular meals as administrators try to resolve the debt. 

The school will contact the student’s family and may assist them in applying for federal assistance if they’re eligible. There have only been a small number of families who decline to seek out government-subsidized meal programs, Bracamonte added. 

All throughout this process, the district purposefully avoids not having the student know what’s going on with their meal accounts. 

“We never want to involve the student in that conversation,” Bracamonte said, “Their ability to pay really shouldn’t be a concern.”

 

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