- Sonja Isger Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A 140-character plea in the Twitterverse launched months ago and several states away has rippled through the cafeteria line in Palm Beach County schools.
At least $7,134 in donations have been made to chip away at the lunch debt carried by thousands of the district’s students, said Allison Monbleau, director of food services.
The donations lifted 709 students out of the red when it came to cafeteria ledgers.
But at least $23,000 is still owed by more than 9,000 students, Monbleau said.
It is, by nature, a moving target.
“We send out negative balance phone calls twice a week. A student who might owe money today might not next week, but two others who didn’t owe, will,” Monbleau said.
A full price school lunch in the county’s elementary schools costs $2.05. In middle and high schools, it’s a quarter more. At least 60 percent of the county’s students are poor enough to qualify for a discounted or free meal through the federal school lunch program.
In the world of fluctuating debt, the sum owed by the county’s students is down about $3,000 from the mark set in February, when a New York woman’s suggestion in the Twitterverse sent Good Samaritans across the country on a mission to chip away at the lunch bill children accrue.
One Palm Beach County donor wiped out $250 in lunch debt at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary that month. The donor paid up; district administrators picked the school that would benefit – and that didn’t cover all that was owed there: $190 remains on the books.
So what does the rest of the student lunch debt look like?
For more than 90 of the district’s nearly 200 traditional and charter schools, the amount owed totals at least $100.
Ten schools report their cafeterias are owed more than $300 – all of the public schools in the Top 10 are schools where more than 80 percent of the students are poor enough to qualify for a federally subsidized lunch.
Palm Beach Lakes High, where 81 percent of students qualify, is the only high school in the Top 10.
Most of the debt at Palm Beach Lakes followed students from elementary and middle school, said Principal David Alfonso.
Alfonso said he does not count that as part of their “obligation” debt, meaning it isn’t money owed that can keep a student from graduating. That type of decision rests with each principal.
Alfonso also notes that high schoolers are typically less inclined to sign up for the lunch program. By that age students can feel it is stigmatizing, though schools have removed practices, like separate lunch lines or meals, that make it easy to spot who is not paying for the meals.
At more than $545, the lunch debt is highest at C.O. Taylor/Kirklane Elementary in Palm Springs, with 1,281 students – 1,088 of them eating a free lunch and dozens more paying less than full price.
How is it that, even with so few students – about 130 – left to pay full freight, they’ve run up the most debt in the district? Well, some of them ran up the debt before they enrolled in the meal program, said Principal Patti Lucas. Her tally indicates $167 of the debt can be traced to this situation.
The application is online and her parents often aren’t. So Lucas tackled that problem by having office staff walk parents through the application at a terminal at school.
“You can’t expect parents, especially those who don’t speak English, to have a home computer and you can’t do this on the phone. You really have to have someone walk you through,” Lucas said.
The good news, Lucas said, is that all students across the district are offered a free breakfast. And at some schools, including hers, the district also dishes out a late-day snack during aftercare.
Kirklane is among those that also send children home with backpacks full of food for the weekend. The next task for Lucas is finding the best way to help over the summer. The school is one of the county’s free meal sites. For anyone in the neighborhood who can get there, a lunch awaits. “But some can’t get here,” Lucas said.