Wellington Rotary to nearly wipe out student lunch debt with $20K gift

A Wellington charity is poised to cover the unpaid school lunch bills for more than 10,000 Palm Beach County students today by donating $20,000 to the school district.

In a year when the cause of school lunch debt was highlighted nationally, and several unexpected donations were made locally, this is the largest in anyone’s memory, said Allison Monbleau, the district’s director of school food service.

“The most up until this time was $3,000 – we had two of them – and that was pretty amazing,” Monbleau said. When the Rotary Club of Wellington announced its intentions, Monbleau was thrilled. “It is so generous of our community to help our students and their families.”

The cost of a school lunch has totaled $2.05 in elementary school and $2.30 in middle and high for a couple of years.

But nearly 67 percent of the county’s 190,000-plus students are poor enough to qualify for those meals to be discounted or free courtesy of the federal lunch program. It’s a sharp increase over last year that came in the wake of Hurricane Irma and a flood of families who qualified for assistance, Monbleau said.

Still, some families struggle to pay even a small share, or the paperwork necessary to qualify goes undone or incomplete. In other instances, parents simply forget to send lunch money with their child or fail to maintain a balance in the lunch account.

School cafeterias don’t turn away hungry students; instead they serve them lunch and run a tab.

As of this week, the district counted 10,263 students who owed lunch money. And if a student’s debt isn’t paid, it will trail that student from one grade to the next. (It’s up to high school principals to decide whether the money owed counts as part of their “obligation” debt that can have repercussions for graduation.)

“There are a lot of kids and families who can’t afford it,” said Larry Kemp, who spearheaded the donation for the Wellington Rotary Club.

Earlier in the year, the local Rotarians won the spare chunk of change they will be donating at the Great Charity Challenge. The event pairs each charity organization with a team of elite horse riders who then compete in a relay-style jumping event.

When your team wins or places, your charity collects. Rotary Club didn’t win first prize, but no one went home a loser, Kemp said.

With an extra $20,000 in pocket, the first thought was to use the winnings to write the club’s regular recipients fatter checks this year, Kemp said. But then some of the leadership read about the mounting lunch debt in The Palm Beach Post.

People across the country were drawn into the conversation last school year when a New York writer took to Twitter to encourage people to pay off student lunch debts at their neighborhood schools. The call to action was later featured on NBC’s “Today” show and soon the debt was a trending topic.

It wasn’t merely the debt that got people talking, but the shame that was sometimes served up in cafeterias, where children who couldn’t pay for lunch were given an alternative that served as a flag announcing their inability to pay.

Palm Beach County cafeterias stopped that practice more than a year ago, Monbleau said.

But eliminating the embarrassing tray didn’t erase the debt. A snapshot of the districtwide balances in April revealed that the amount owed was at least $100 at 90 of the district’s nearly 200 traditional and charter schools. This week, the number of cafeterias owed $100 or more had hit 108.

Ten schools reported their cafeterias were owed more than $300 – all of the public schools in the Top 10 were schools where more than 80 percent of the students were poor enough to qualify for a federally subsidized lunch.

With publicity came some relief. From January to June this year, donors paid off $13,938 in lunch debt. Among the donors, another Wellington charity, “School Lunch Fairy,” which was formed by a King’s Academy student who has now graduated.

At the close of the budget year in June, the balance in Palm Beach County School cafeterias hit more than $26,000. This week, the toll is up to $28,000, Monbleau said.

The Rotarians are excited they found a way to directly help their neighbors in Palm Beach County.

“And that’s our function in Rotary,” Kemp said. “Our motto is, ‘Service above self.’ ”

The largest lunch debts in Palm Beach County schools

Palm Beach Maritime Academy $620

C.O. Taylor/Kirklane Elem $586

Cholee Lake Elem $420

Grove Park Elem $409

Palm Beach Lakes High $395

Hope-Centennial Elem $355

Seminoles Trails Elem $335

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Elem $331

South Grade Elem $318

Westward Elem $299

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