CLAYTON – Bob Hawker, Next Step Pastor at Salem Church of God, 6500 Southway Road, Clayton, said the church officials wanted a “tangible way to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s words that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive.’ And we’re always looking for a way to partner with the local school.
So, he called Northmont and Brookville schools and asked how much it would take to pay off the amounts the students owe for lunch. He was stunned to find the total debt at Northmont, and Brookville was $14,000.
“We wonder if we should just try to knock it down instead of paying it off,” Hawker said, “but then we decided, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
This debt, unconnected with the federal government’s free lunches, is incurred when the when parents fail to pay, and students charge their lunch. Some parents are simply disorganized and don’t pay, and other families make too much to qualify for the federal program but still can’t afford the price of the lunch. (At Northmont Middle School, the plate lunch costs $2.90 a day, while at Brookville Intermediate School it costs $3.05. There are other options, and prices at the elementary and high schools also differ.)
Schools’ policy on charging lunches varies. Pam Pearson, the food service director at Northmont, explained that unlimited charges area allowed in the elementary grades “but we contact the parents. High school kids are allowed one charge, but the older kids are better at putting us in touch with their parents.” She emphasized that the debt is recorded at the point of sale and no child is ever singled out as receiving a free lunch or charging it.
At Brookville Elementary, said Hopkins, “they let the parents know of the debt but continue to serve a plate lunch. At the high school level, if the charge gets too high, we serve them a peanut butter or cheese sandwich.”
Hopkins explained the charges are “a rolling debt. A student’s debt in the third grade continues into the fourth grade.”
Students who own money are never denied food.
On Feb. 16, the pastors at Salem Church of God told the congregation, “We are giving you a chance to join us to do this.”
On Feb. 23, said Hawker, “We passed the plate, and some people paid online.”
If the amount of the debt stunned church officials, so did the response.
This past Sunday the church annopunced that $43,448. After paying Northmont and Brookville up to the day the payment was made, the church added nine other area schools to their list. (Trotwood, a Title I school, already receives federal funds for lunches.)
Church officials do not currently plan to do this again next year, but Hawker said the church reserved a few thousand dollars for an angel fund to defray future debt at Northmont.
“We try to find a wrong and make it right,” he said.