A New Yorker read about an anonymous donor paying off the school lunch debt for Ocean Springs schools last month and looked for a school district he could help.
“With the world being such a difficult place these days, no family or student should worry about debt related to something as important as a child’s lunch,” he wrote in an email to the food services director for the Jackson County School District.
Lark Christian is that food director and she was surprised and pleased when he raised what they needed — $2,250 — in a GoFundMe account. She said what he and his friends raised covered the debt in just three weeks of fundraising.
At first, he contacted Ocean Springs, and administrators there pointed him to the other three school districts in the county — Moss Point, Pascagoula-Gautier and Jackson County.
He was looking for the poorest by family income, but discovered that school districts with a high enough percentage of families on federal food assistance don’t have a problem with school lunch debt. All the children in those districts get free lunch and breakfast.
So Jackson County School District was the only other district in this Mississippi county that had lunch payments in arrears.
Of the 9,300 students in the district, 600 had charged something on their school lunch account and owed at the end of the year. Some accounts were as little as the price of a lunch, $2.50. None owed more than $12.50, Christian said.
“It’s something we struggle with every year,” Christian said. The school district has a lot of middle-class, blue-collar families, but 57 percent of the students are on a federal program for free or reduced lunches.
However, there are even more families in the district living on tight budgets, she said. When the federal government looks at those who apply for free or reduced lunch, they look at income.
“They don’t look at what’s being pulled out of that income, like medical bills that stress their situation,” she said. Those are the families likely to slip up and let school lunch payments slide.
She communicated with the man via email. He told her last week that the GoFundMe account had completed its mission for Jackson County schools. It is closed.
The narrative on the website said he wanted to target schools with the poorest populations. It sounds as if he plans to continue the effort with other schools around the country. He did not return a request for interview from the Sun Herald.
He and a friend set up the GoFundMe, and in it called the Jackson County School District one of the poorest in the country.
As it turns out, about 43 percent don’t qualify for free or reduced meals, which is pretty high for school districts in Mississippi, Christian said.
It’s the second largest school district in South Mississippi and sixth largest in the state.
The district has 13 schools.
“We have a lot of hard working parents who paid their bills,” said Superintendent Barry Amacker.
However, Christian, who deals with collecting lunch payments, added, “but every kid that needs (this help), needs it.”
Christian said the man who collected the money wanted families to begin their summer without having to worry about debt, she said.
“I wish every child got a free lunch,” she said, “but our district doesn’t qualify. I battle the charging situation every year. I don’t want any child feeling uncomfortable getting their lunch every day.”