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UPDATE: Decatur Schools no longer serving cheese sandwiches to students with lunch debt

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UPDATE: Decatur Schools no longer serving cheese sandwiches to students with lunch debt

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — City Schools of Decatur announced on Thursday, Jan. 25, that $88,000 in lunch debt was eliminated through a corporate foundation grant.

As first reported by Decaturish, City Schools of Decatur announced earlier this month that beginning on Feb. 1, the district’s meal charge procedures would be updated and students could have a maximum of three meals charged to their accounts for the entire school year. Once the limits are reached, students would be given an alternative meal of a cheese sandwich and milk. A spokesperson for CSD confirmed on Thursday, Jan. 25, that the district will no longer be implementing those policy changes.

The Arby’s Foundation provided the $88,000 donation. Here’s the full press release from CSD:

City Schools of Decatur is grateful for the overwhelming support we have received from the greater Atlanta community. Our doors remain open for ongoing collaboration. However, we are delighted to confirm the $88k lunch debt has been eliminated thanks to the generosity of a corporate foundation grant. All past balances have been forgiven. CSD has less than a 10 percent poverty rate, and eligible families continue to receive regular meals through the National Lunch Program. We have also finalized agreements with organizations to provide additional assistance to individual families experiencing financial hardships. As a public school district, we often have to make difficult decisions. However, we remain committed to providing healthy meal options for all students while working diligently to proactively prevent future debt reoccurrences.

School Board Chair James Herndon also told Decaturish that the school board is proud of the administration’s effort to secure assistance for those experiencing financial hardships.

“In response to community feedback, they have also enhanced internal systems to make it easier for families to avoid negative balances. I hope the community will give us time as the board works to fix the issues,” Herndon said. “This same advocacy at the state level is also encouraged by the community to fully resolve the concerns around the School Nutrition Program for all public school districts.”

Under the policy CSD discarded, middle and high school students could charge $10.50 to their account, and elementary students could charge $9.75 before they were to be given a cheese sandwich.

Of the $88,000 in unpaid meal charges, 46% were students who pay for lunch, 36% were students who receive free or reduced lunch, 6% were CSD staff and 12% were students who are no longer in the school district.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provided funding to public schools, so every student could receive meals at no cost, regardless of family income. That program ended in 2022 and CSD continued its regular practice of meal charges.

The school district also continued to offer meals to students for free for some time following the end of the federal program, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

CSD was asking families to pay any outstanding balances related to school meals.

Following outrage about the policy of serving cheese sandwiches as alternative meals, the community came together to try to cover this cost. The Arby’s Foundation’s $88,000 donation to CSD will clear the balances of 765 students, according to a press release.

The foundation will donate $1 million this month to schools across the country to pay off school lunch debt. The Arby’s Foundation will also donate to Cobb County, Henry County, and Fulton County school districts.

“Childhood hunger is something that no one should ever have to face, and school lunch should be a time that kids look forward to without worrying if they’ll have a meal that day,” said Stuart Brown, executive director of Inspire Brands Foundation, in the release. “We’re honored to have partnered with so many local school districts to help those students enjoy lunchtime with their classmates, and ease the burden on parents.”

Herndon added the school district is grateful for the generosity of the Arby’s Foundation and the community support.

In addition to the Arby’s Foundation, Perimeter Roofing stepped up and donated $60,000 to the Decatur Education Foundation on Thursday.

“Now all kids in Decatur City Schools can have the childhood experience in school that they deserve #PerimeterCares,” the company said in a Facebook post.

Perimeter Roofing launched Perimeter Cares in 2018 to give back to the community. Since then, the business set out to pay off lunch debt for a few schools each week, except for during the COVID-19 pandemic, when school lunches were offered to students for free.

“The biggest reason we started was because I have three kids and I don’t want to see any kid go without eating. It’s not their fault at the end of the day. If we can do something to help, I feel like as adults we should be able to reach out and do something,” Perimeter Roofing Founder and President Todd Price said. “It was something we started as a challenge to others in the community just to do good. We took off with it and kept doing it.”

Metro Atlanta business owner and mother Jasmine Crowe-Houston jumped into action as well and launched a GoFundMe to cover the cost. In about 48 hours, she raised over $86,000.

At this time, the GoFundMe donations have not been given to the school district. Given CSD’s announcement of the corporate foundation grant, Crowe-Houston said she has reached out to GoFundMe to issue refunds to those who contributed.

She had hoped the donation would be used to clear the debt and create a nutrition reserve fund, “so that when other kids can’t pay one day, that this money can be pulled from to still make sure that those kids eat.”

Crowe-Houston told Decaturish that she did offer to still donate, but the district told her it would like to see the funds go where there is a greater need. The school district has a less than 10% poverty rate.

She offered an additional statement on Thursday afternoon about the fundraiser. Here’s her full statement:

Thanks to the incredible outpouring of love and support, I achieved my fundraising goal in less than 48 hours. However, I was informed that a corporate foundation has not only cleared the school lunch debt for City Schools of Decatur district but also for several other school districts. While I did offer to still provide the donation to set up a reserve nutrition fund for future meal balances, my donation was declined. In light of this, I am working with GoFundMe, and we will refund all contributions and I have closed the GoFundMe to avoid further donations.

While the initial issue that prompted this campaign has been successfully resolved, the insights gained from this experience will continue to inspire both me and the Goodr team to actively work on preventing such situations in the future. I can’t thank everyone enough for elevating this issue – I am happy to know the balance for the students has been cleared and that students will not receive an alternative lunch of a cheese sandwich and milk.

Herndon added that CSD has not declined any donations.

“People who wish to make additional contributions are being directed to the Decatur Education Foundation,” Herndon said.

Crowe-Houston runs Goodr, a company that works to reduce food insecurity and food waste. She saw Decaturish’s previous story about school lunch and felt compelled to help.

“I’ve been fighting and being an advocate, so that people can eat, for over a decade,” Crowe-Houston said. “When I saw the story, what actually made me mad, to be honest, was the cheese sandwich and the milk.”

She was also frustrated to see that alternate meals would be given for missing three payments and raised concerns about families having a short amount of time

“If you’re a parent, and you’re making that decision of do I pay my rent, do I put gas in the car to get to work, do I pay for lunch. A lot of times food is the first to go and three days, that’s not a lot of time before you go to a cheese sandwich,” Crowe-Houston said.

Crowe-Houston had set a goal of $80,000 to help the students who would be affected right away. She received many messages from people in Decatur, and other areas, wondering how to help and sharing stories of their experiences of receiving an alternate meal in school.

“I’m shocked. I think people care about kids, and that’s what makes me happy,” she said. “I think the saddest thing that’s come out of this is hearing this happens at a lot of other school districts.”

School districts across the nation reported about $18 million in unpaid meal debt in a fall 2023 survey by the School Nutrition Association. The amounts varied from $10 to $1 million, depending on the school district. The median meal debt increased from $2,000 at the end of the 2014-2015 school year to $5,495 in November 2023, according to the AJC.

The AJC also reported that DeKalb County Schools has a current meal debt of $37,000. Although most students in DeKalb qualify for free and reduced-price meals. About half of DeKalb County schools qualify for free meals for all students.

The potential change to the meal charges would have only affected City Schools of Decatur. DeKalb County Schools sent out a statement on Thursday reminding the community that there are two school districts in the county.

Here is DCSD’s full statement:

There are two school districts in DeKalb County: the City Schools of Decatur and the DeKalb County School District (DCSD).

DCSD offers healthy and nutritious meals to all students every school day. It is the longstanding practice across DCSD schools that standard breakfast, lunch, and snack options are accessible to every student without any substitution or alternative menu options, regardless of their ability to pay or balance on their charge account.

Meal charges are recorded, and paid lunch families receive weekly balance notifications. Payments can be made throughout the school year.

DCSD has over 82% of students eligible for Free and Reduced meals. The District is committed to compassionately working with families to satisfy outstanding charges by offering payment plans, community funding, or government programs to reduce or entirely cover meal balances.

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