With the end of the school year looming in Westbrook School Department in Maine, Superintendent Peter Lancia was trying to settle the budget. There was a large red entry in the ledgers: nearly $17,000 of lunch debt.
Lunch debt is common in school districts all over the country. Many schools, like those in Westbrook, have a policy of feeding students whether or not they can pay on the spot. A lunch in these schools cost $2.30, so this total represented just shy of 7,400 meals, or approximately two meals per student across the entire district over the year.
About 60 percent of Westbrook students receive free or reduced-cost lunch due to household income and federal poverty guidelines. But those who do have to pay may not come from families that can afford to make those payments
“We want children to eat,” said Lancia in an interview with the Press Herald, based in nearby Portland, Maine. “We feed kids, and we settle the bills with parents later.”
In Maine, many people work full-time—or sometimes more than full-time—at low-paying jobs that put them just above the line for free or reduced-cost lunch.
“We have a lot of people who are living paycheck to paycheck, and they may not be able to make every end meet,” Lancia said.
But $17,000 is a large chunk of change, and while the schools take steps to reach out to parents whose lunch accounts are in arrears, they rarely recoup most of the debt.
Lancia was therefore astounded when an anonymous donor contacted the school on Monday, May 21, with an offer to cover more than half of the lunch debt. The donor’s follow-up was immediate—later that morning, a $10,000 check arrived at Lancia’s office.
“I’m not speechless often, and it was one of those moments,” he said.
The district is still deciding how to allocate the donation between its five schools. The amount will cover approximately 4,300 meals.
“We provide, oftentimes, the only stable meal for the day, the only guarantee for a meal, so I think this person just wanted to show her belief in kids and recognize that there are kids in need,” Lancia said of the donor, who requested to remain anonymous. “She was able to help them, and I am just really grateful she was able to do that.”