PHOTO: School lunches

THEY’D PROBABLY shudder at the comparison, but you could call the Revs. Jerry Williams, Brian Bennett and Andrew Segrea of Mount Ararat Baptist Church the three wise men who came bearing gifts this holiday season.

The pastors discovered a need—unpaid lunch debt at Stafford and Spotsylvania public schools—and promptly put a huge dent in it with nearly $17,000 in donations.

Their contribution of $6,518 to Spotsylvania cleared the ledger for all county schools as of the Nov. 19 donation date, though just three weeks later it was back up to $5,124, according to school officials.

In Stafford, a $10,400 contribution did away with lunch debt at four of the county’s elementary schools. At the time of the gift, the full balance in Stafford was roughly $40,000.

“We plan on chipping away at that,” Williams told The Free Lance–Star.

To be clear, it is their church and the faithful within it who have made these donations possible—not just the pastors themselves. As with many area churches, Mount Ararat’s congregation emphasizes its role as a member of the community and reaches out to help where it can, with money and volunteerism. Beneficiaries are organizations dedicated to helping those in need, such as Micah Ministries and Loisann’s Hope House.

Lunch debt presents a financial challenge to the schools, which have tried to combat it in various ways. The General Assembly finally did away, statewide, with the practice of “lunch shaming,” which allowed the schools to provide a bare-bones lunch of cheese sandwich, fruit and milk to students whose lunch accounts have a negative balance. There’s no hiding the situation when a kid shows up at the table with the dreaded cheese sandwich, and, of course, there’s no excuse for the taunts that often follow.

Schools have also tried reaching out to parents by phone or email to ask for payment. Teachers and administrators have made their own contributions toward their schools’ lunch debt, along with help from parent–teacher groups.

Nutrition is basic to a child’s success in the classroom. Everyone has experienced the difficulty of trying to concentrate once the hunger bug has bitten. For a child who may be getting less than a full plate to eat at home, breakfast and lunch at school can help that student overcome the distraction of an empty stomach.

Some school lunch debt happens because families fail to take advantage of free or reduced-price meals.

Because the government knows the negative impact that hunger has on student performance, it subsidizes school meals based on family size and income. For a family of four, for example, students are eligible for free meals if household income is $33,475 or less, which is 130 percent of the poverty level. Reduced price meals are provided if household income for that family of four is less than $47,638.

School officials believe that some families fail to sign up for subsidized meals because they don’t think the process is confidential, which it is. Once parents submit the paperwork, money shows up in the student’s account. Who’s to say how it got there?

If there is another basic need that goes unfilled at many schools, it is the lack of school supplies. Virginia may rank 32nd among the states in how much it pays its teachers, but they prove their selflessness everyday by picking up the tab for everything from pencils to tissues for their classrooms. They’ve turned to crowdfunding websites to raise money, and asked parents to help if they are able. Perhaps civic organizations could help even more than they already do.

The example the Mount Ararat pastors have set with their church’s lunch debt payments is as remarkable as the donations are generous. But it is also a call to action for a community that is well aware of tight public school budgets.

“This is not a churchy thing,” Williams said. “This—helping children and families—this is a thing that anyone can do.”

If you haven’t yet made your resolutions for the New Year, helping others is a good example to follow.

Twitter: @FLS_Opinion

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