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Local church gives Austin ISD $24,000 to cover student lunch debt

School lunch Maplewood
Michael Minasi
Students file in and out of the cafeteria during lunch at Summitt Elementary School in Austin in 2021.

Whitney Bell, the director of mission at Covenant Presbyterian Church, keeps her ear to the ground about ways to help out fellow Austinites.

“Each year, Covenant sets aside a chunk of funding so that we can use those funds to kind of think creatively, out of the box, of ways we can love and bless the City of Austin,” she said.

One day, she heard about student lunch debt on the news. The debt occurs when students who are supposed to pay for school meals they receive are unable to cover the cost.

This was not a problem during much of the pandemic because a federal waiver allowed schools nationwide to provide free meals to all students regardless of family income. That waiver expired ahead of the 2022-2023 school year after Republicans in Congress blocked efforts to renew it.

That meant schools had to revert back to the previous system of requiring some students to pay for meals. Students qualify for free meals if their family's income is at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. Kids are eligible for reduced-price meals if their family's income is between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty line. All other students have to pay full price.

Since the pandemic-era program ended, school districts have once again seen some families struggle to afford school meals.

Bell said she decided to reach out to Austin ISD and learned there was more than $14,000 of student lunch debt. Paying off this debt, she said, seemed to her and members of the church’s mission committee like a way to have an impact.

“To be able to fill that gap for those students who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch but can’t pay for lunch, we wanted to do that,” she said.

The church is not only paying off the existing school lunch debt, it is also giving Austin ISD an additional $10,000.

“That is to go toward paying any debt the students continue to accrue, so that their debt isn’t just wiped and then they begin to accrue it again,” she said. “If they accrue more debt, that’s paid down, so that they don’t have to worry about school lunch for the rest of the school year.”

According to Austin ISD, the district serves about 600 courtesy meals per day to students who have an outstanding meal balance.

Lindsey Bradley, a marketing specialist for Austin ISD Food Service, said the district is grateful for the donation from Covenant Presbyterian Church.

"In learning their decision to pay above and beyond the current debt, we knew that this would relieve a point of stress for families in need, now and in the future," Bradley said. "While these funds come to Austin ISD, these donations are more about supporting Austin families."

Other school districts in Central Texas have seen people step up and pay off school meal debt. Donors helped pay outstanding balances for Georgetown ISD students ahead of the holidays last December. Earlier this month, Christ Lutheran Church donated $2,360 to Georgetown ISD, which the district used to pay down account balances at six campuses. The Georgetown branch of the A+ Federal Credit Union gave the district $1,000 to pay off balances at Mitchell Elementary School.

In a poll that No Kid Hungry Texas released earlier this year, 89% of respondents said free school meals should be available to all kids who need them. And, according to a report the City of Austin published last fall, 15.2% of children in Travis County are food insecure, meaning they do not have access to enough food.

Bell said she hopes these types of donations inspire others to act, but this issue is not going away.

“My hope is that on a larger level, whether that’s through legislation or the state, that there’s a way to think through how we can love and care for these kids," she said, "so this isn’t something that different groups are having to bridge the gap for but instead maybe it’s just not an issue they have to face at all."

Bradley said there has always been a need for universal free meals in schools. Providing them, she said, would benefit all children by giving them access to nutritious food and reducing the stigma that can be associated with applying for meal benefits.

"Universal meals help bring equity to our schools and cities, creating the food access that all students need and deserve," she said.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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