It doesn’t seem like much — $2.65 — but it has sure meant a lot to nearly three dozen O’Fallon School District 90 students.
The amount is the price of a school lunch. But it equates to more than just meal. Studies have shown that students who have a nutritious mid-day repast have better attendance, get better grades, and have less behavioral issues.
“School lunch programs provide students healthy lunches while showing them the components of a balanced meal. Research on student achievement very clearly shows the importance of good nutrition on the ability to learn,” said Carrie Hruby, O’Fallon District 90 superintendent.
For students who meet state-specified poverty guidelines, there is the free or reduced meal program, which is subsided by the federal government. Reduced lunch prices are just 40 cents, instead of the $2.65; the cost of breakfast goes $1.20 to just 30 cents. About 23 percent of the 3,670 students in District 90 qualify for free or reduced meal waivers.
But, as with any system, there are those who fall through the cracks. They are children of parents who make too much money to qualify for a subsidy, but the regular meal price is something they still cannot afford. Over the course of a school year, daily lunch for one kid adds up to $477. Add in breakfast and it’s $693.
“These generous donations ensure children continue to receive nutritious meals, even when parents may be struggling to pay past due fees,” Hruby said.
In District 90, no child is forced to go without lunch.
“In our district, every child can get a meal, regardless of whether their lunch account balance is negative or not. We don’t want anyone going hungry,” said Patty Cavins, the district’s business manager.
However, those not in the subsidized program can rack up a bill. Currently, the district has dished out about $4,200 in meals for which there has been no payment.
“So that’s not horrible, compared to our budget. But, obviously, we would like to see those go down,” Cavins said.
Hruby pointed to one such family of a student at Estelle Kampmeyer Elementary that could not keep up with their school meal tab.
“The mother said she and her husband have decent jobs but were recently very overwhelmed with medical bills,” Hruby said.
Such stories were more than a group of O’Fallon citizens could bear. In March, they formed the “Lunch Bunch.” A representative of the anonymous group walked into the district office with $200 in hand and told school officials to use it to feed some kids.
“They are helping families who are struggling financially for various reasons but don’t qualify for waivers, based on annual income,” Hruby said.
They have continued every month since.
“These kind community members have come in to the district office like clock work to donate over $200 each month for the purpose of making someone else’s life a little easier to manage,” Hruby said.
The group has contributed about $1,800 to pay off the lunch balances of 33 students who do not qualify for free or reduced meal waivers.
“What touches our hearts the most about this story is that the ‘Lunch Bunch’ wishes to remain anonymous,” Hruby said. “They don’t know the names of the families who receive their generosity, nor do the families know who they are.”
Sodexo’s Robin Stone has worked in the E.K. cafeteria and as a cashier for 15 years. She said her “heart melted a little” when she heard about the Lunch Bunch.
“Once you get this in your blood, and being around all these kids all the time, there’s just no going back. It’s wonderful — best job I ever had,” Stone said.
The little bit of help has meant the world to families, like the one at E.K.
“They aren’t used to taking handouts or needing help,” Hruby said. “It was a really touching moment, because (the mother) was really emotional about the whole thing.”
They hope to one day repay the favor by returning the kindness that has been visited upon them, Hruby said.
“The mother was so touched that she wants to —someday soon — help pay it forward for a family who is also struggling, once they get back on their feet,” she said.