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Donors, groups working to backfill mounting student meal debts

SNOHOMISH COUNTY — The state Legislature passed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act in 2018 ensuring that all students receive a hot meal at school, whether or not they can pay. The law prohibits districts from serving an alternative offering such as a sack lunch.
A resulting pinch on school districts is meal debts are accumulating, but some individuals and groups are stepping up to fill in the gaps.
Tamara Krache, a spokeswoman for the Monroe School District, said despite the district’s full belief students should have well-rounded meals, families who do not qualify for free or reduced lunches still have to pay for the food their children receive. “If these families do not pay, we still feed their children a full-priced meal and then we are left with the growing debt,” Krache said.
As of June, the outstanding debt balance for the student lunch program in Snohomish was almost $76,000. Monroe is owed approximately $39,000 and Everett has close to $7,200 still to recoup.
“Districts are in a tough situation when it comes to school meal debt,” Krache said. “House Bill 2610 is an unfunded mandate and has played a significant role in our increased district meal debt.”
School districts typically reach out through weekly emails and phone calls to let parents know about balances being negative. Districts also usually mail letters throughout the school year.

Courtesy photo

Nikki Bailey and her family (above) created Three Point Clothing, a nonprofit with a mission to reduce school lunch debts for the area’s high school senior classes by using clothing sales. Here, some of her family wears the company’s “Be Kind” T-shirts. In less than six months, the company has donated more than $3,000 toward meal debt programs. In the photo is: Harrison, age 2, Nikki Bailey, Harper, age 4, and Jordan Bailey.

Some community members and organizations have stepped in with charitable donations to help individual schools and districts address negative balances in their meal programs. Krache said the Monroe Public Schools Foundation and Three Point Clothing have made generous donations to the district.
Nikki Bailey of Monroe started the Three Point Clothing nonprofit organization this spring to help pay off the lunch debts for some of the area’s graduating seniors. One hundred percent of profits from clothing sales go toward paying off meal debts.
She said that even though her own children aren’t yet of school age and she works a full-time job, she felt compelled to help with the issue after hearing reports in the media. “For anybody else, there is nothing that is really held against them, but for the seniors in most districts it can affect their graduation process, the most common is obviously holding their diploma and transcripts,” she said.
Her company’s name reflects the national average cost of $3.01 for student lunches. Bailey said the logo and alternative slogan “Be Kind” are meant to spark a conversation.
Students’ positive or negative lunch account balances are carried over from one school year to the next. Depending on each school district’s individual policy, a negative balance can affect the ability of high school seniors to graduate.
In Everett, fellow seniors helped cover the debt.
“We had about $1,400 come in just with the senior refunds, not getting the refund but the donations,” said Joanna Peeler, the Food and Nutrition Director for Everett Public Schools. “And that helped cover the cost of all the other senior negative balances.”
Bailey decided to start her first campaign for the Monroe School District in late May and within two weeks was able to pay off the full $1,242.34 debt held by Monroe’s high school seniors. Bailey has subsequently been able to help other graduating classes, selling enough merchandise to cover the entire $986.87 seniors owed to the Snohomish School District and $904.42 for the Northshore School District that serves students in the Bothell, Kenmore and Woodinville areas.
“Lunch balances are considered fines, much like a student textbook fine or other kinds of fines,” Kristin Foley, the spokeswoman for the Snohomish School District, said,
Bailey said that many schools don’t make diplomas and transcripts available until July so it’s not too late for her to make a difference.
In Everett’s system, all students’ balances carry over to the next school year. A graduating senior with a positive balance for their account would get a form would receive a refund form to reimburse the money. They could then choose to either get a refund, transfer the amount to another student in the district, or simply donate it.
Students who aren’t enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program have access to the schools’ breakfast and lunch offerings, but not single à la carte items, such as chips and drinks. The charge for each meal would then be added to the individual student’s account as a negative balance.
Bailey said that as a result of her charitable experiences this year with Three Point Clothing, she’s grown to understand the issue better and now sees it from a different perspective. She started out with only the students in mind, but as she talked to more districts and foundations realized that her efforts help the schools as well.
“What may have been lost money and have to be allocated from another budget item, is now accounted for,” she said. “Which also help the kids as well. It’s win-win!”
Peeler said feeding students is important and that it’s not a child’s fault if their parent or guardian doesn’t have money. “At the heart of it we want kids to have a meal so that they are ready to learn and they’re prepared for the day; so we are always going to feed them,” she said.

Current total debts for student lunch programs by district:

Snohomish - $75,783, as of June 3
Monroe - $38,954, as of June 20
Everett - $7,190 as of last month, exact date unavailable at press time




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