Thousands of students returning to school after Christmas break will find surprises in the lunch lines: no more overdue charges.
Donations have flooded school districts over the past two weeks as people metrowide pitched in to pay off outstanding school lunch debts, which can create hefty bills for schools and pressure for financially strapped families.
Thanks to a donation campaign, the $27,000-plus balance in overdue lunches at St. Paul Public Schools was erased in a couple weeks. Nearly $100,000 in donations to Minneapolis Public Schools as of Thursday afternoon was topped by a $15,000 donation from the staffs of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx later that day.
A woman dropped off a $5,227 check at Maple Grove High School this week, wiping away the overdue balances for hundreds of students.
“It warms your heart,” said Osseo Area Schools spokeswoman Barbara Olson. “Some days you wonder if people are that generous anymore. This person clearly was.”
Stacy Koppen, nutrition services director for St. Paul Public Schools, was surprised by how little time it took to clear its debt, but not by what she saw as the reasons why: “This cause really spoke to individuals,” she said. “It touched them. We’re talking about children who are hungry — and may, unfortunately, be carrying a burden.”
While the free lunch program guarantees meals for eligible students, some who don’t qualify “have a really, really hard time making ends meet,” said Bertrand Weber, Minneapolis schools’ director of culinary and wellness services.
Minneapolis schools’ nonprofit partner Achieve Minneapolis kicked off the donation campaign a couple weeks ago, inspired by a popular tweet urging donations to school lunch accounts. The district had about 4,000 overdue accounts with a total balance of $160,000.
St. Paul schools started its campaign around the same time, citing a slew of phone calls it began receiving from people wanting to donate. At the time, the district said that it had 1,793 students whose families couldn’t pay for lunches, and an outstanding balance of $27,879.
The district went live with its fundraising campaign on Friday, Dec. 9, and by the following Monday, it had raised $18,000, Koppen said. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, the tally was $29,186, and rising. The surplus will be used to cover lunch debts through the rest of the year, Koppen said.
In Maple Grove, the anonymous donor pitched in $3,227 to cover all overdue lunch accounts, plus an additional $2,000 for future unpaid balances.
Kids aren’t turned away during lunch in St. Paul, said a district spokeswoman, but a delinquent balance can make the difference between a hot meal and a cheese sandwich. Minneapolis students get full meals despite outstanding balances, the district said.
Maple Grove High continues to serve hot lunches to students if they are not paid up, but it affects students in other ways, like a restriction when applying for parking permits or purchasing tickets to dances, she said.
Other districts, such as Anoka-Hennepin and Lakeville, are accepting donations for school lunch funds.
Donors to the Minneapolis and St. Paul campaigns can add comments to their donations, which often are heartwarming, Koppen said.
Some donate because of personal experiences, some in honor of others. Seventeen St. Paul contributions came in memory of Philando Castile, the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet cafeteria supervisor who was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights this summer. He’d been known to front kids money in the lunch line if they needed it.
Others give just because.
“It feels good to know there’s so many people out there that want to help kids,” said Danielle Grant, who heads Achieve Minneapolis.
Said Koppen, “Every time I look, it increases. It’s just gone so fast, you know?”
Staff writer Shannon Prather contributed to this report.