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After families pitch in, Iredell-Statesville Schools has a plan to avoid lunch debt

East Iredell Elementary students sold hot cocoa to help raise money to pay off lunch debt in Iredell-Statesville Schools.
Courtesy of Jean Foster
East Iredell Elementary students sold hot cocoa to help raise money to pay off lunch debt in Iredell-Statesville Schools.

Iredell-Statesville Schools has a new strategy for making sure students can afford a school lunch this year. It comes after the community rallied last year to clear more than $30,000 in debt.

For the first two years of the pandemic, the federal government paid for all students in all public schools to eat free. That ended last school year, and districts across the country saw lunch debts rise.

In Iredell-Statesville, Emily Kiral shared a “pay it forward” meme on Facebook shortly before winter break and raised about $1,500 in an hour to clear the debt at her child’s school.

So Kiral, Jean Foster and some other parents started thinking: What would it take to cover the entire district’s debt?

Normally, Foster says, that’s about $10,000 for an entire school year. This year it was $30,000 at the midpoint.

“We knew it was going to be a little bit different. Didn’t recognize how out of the norm it was going to be, though,” Foster said.

This was happening across the country. The School Nutrition Association polled districts in November and found more than $19 million in lunch debt had built up already.

How this normally works in Iredell-Statesville Schools is each school has to try to collect from families. If a school falls short, that school is responsible for making up the difference.

Foster describes the district as an affluent one with pockets of poverty. She and her fellow organizers felt like there were several reasons for those who could give to help those who were struggling.

“Certainly the children benefit because they are eating. Those families benefit as well that have difficulty paying the debts for whatever the reason may be,” she said.

And there was a chance to help principals at their kids’ schools: “Their coffers are already slim to none, so that was a big point for us, helping the educators.”

So the families launched a campaign called “Clean Slate for a Full Plate.” They created a crowd-sourcing page. Community groups and churches held benefits. A group of elementary students set up a hot chocolate bar, with proceeds going toward lunch debt.

Kiral said she got goosebumps seeing the money pour in. “It’s so important to make sure our children have food in their bellies to be able to focus and fuel their bodies and minds,” she said. “As a community, it is our responsibility to raise these children to be happy, productive and healthy citizens.”

The Clean Slate campaign raised more than $30,000. But as they worked, lunch debt was still piling up. By the end of the year, the total was close to $50,000, including the portion that had been paid off by the Clean Slate crew and others who gave separately. District spokesperson Jada Jonas said rather than leave any principals holding the bag, the district paid the final $5,300.

The new school year starts Monday. For the first time, Iredell-Statesville Schools is using a federal program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students in high-poverty schools, without families filling out applications. That program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision, has been in use for years in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which have higher poverty levels.

Eighteen of Iredell-Statesville’s 38 schools will offer free meals to all this year. At the other schools, low-income families can get free or discounted lunches for their kids, but only if they fill out applications.

Schools providing free meals for all students are:

  • Celeste Henkel, Cloverleaf, Cool Spring, East Iredell, Harmony, N.B. Mills, Scotts, Sharon, Third Creek and Union Grove elementary schools.
  • Discovery Program at the Springs and Northview Academy.
  • East Iredell, North Iredell, Third Creek and West Iredell middle schools.
  • Statesville and West Iredell high schools.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.