An End-of-Year Miracle in the Lunch Line

The team that oversees the cafeterias in Loudoun’s public schools got some good news on the last day of school Friday. They could inform the students who owed money for unpaid breakfasts and lunches that their debt had been forgiven.

“This was the perfect end-of-the-year miracle,” Director of Nutrition Services Becky Domokos-Bays said. “We’re very grateful.”

Loudoun’s public school system has a policy to allow students to eat school breakfast or lunch, even if they don’t have the money to pay for it. But at the end of each school year, the debt accrued from families who don’t reimburse the division adds up, and each school is usually left to pay the tab. And money taken out of each school’s fund means less money for educational purposes, Bays said.

This year, some schools racked up as much as $800, and the school system in total tallied more than $20,000 in meal debt.

In February, after seeing national news reports about school lunch debt reaching millions of dollars in some school districts, former Purcellville mayor Bob Lazaro and Leesburg parent Julia Humphries contacted Bays to ask if Loudoun had unpaid meal tickets. They partnered with the Loudoun Education Foundation to launch a campaign to raise money to cover the cost. In the past three months, they raised $11,018.

Then, last week, Bays got another call. A local businesswoman who preferred to remain anonymous asked her about the remaining balance district wide. A couple of days later, the woman delivered a check for $9,000.

“It was a great surprise,” Bays said.

She later had a father call her to pay off the $3 he owed, and she smiled when she could tell him, “Don’t worry, the debt’s been forgiven.”

A student who owed $4 emailed her to pay his tab, and she told him the same thing. “He wrote back and said ‘thank you for this and for all the great food over the years.’ I emailed back and said ‘thank you and maybe you’ll have a chance to pay it forward,’” Bays said. “It’s been great. We’re very happy that these folks don’t have to worry about this now.”

“People were overwhelmingly generous,” said Lazaro, who initiated the campaign.

As of September, 13,529 students in Loudoun County come from poor enough households to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. But, Lazaro said, there are hundreds of other students whose parents make too much money to qualify for the program, but still struggle to afford to pay for school breakfast or lunch.

“There’s this whole other group of kids whose parents don’t qualify and go on wanting,” he said, “and so you wind up with this school meal debt. We wanted to eliminate that.”

As of this week, the campaign has raised about $4,000 beyond this year’s debt. The plan is to put that money toward meals for low-income students for next school year.

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