Newburgh woman commits to ending school lunch debt

Melinda Mitchell

Newburgh-based Melinda Mitchell was so touched by a YouTube video she watched about about a mom who started fixing a second sandwich for her son's friend who wasn't eating at school, because he couldn't afford to pay for his lunch.

That's when she decided to stop by Newburgh Elementary and see if there were lunch debts locally.

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Mitchell's original inquiry led her to start the Warrick County School Lunch Buddies, a group of local people dedicated to helping reduce the nearly $5,000 lunch debt owed to the Warrick County School Corporation by families who can't afford to pay the lunch costs.

Although Mitchell just started the group last week, she and the two other members of the group helped to solicit $1,200 in donations from the American Legion Auxiliary, the sons of the legion and members of the Newburgh Kapperman Post #44 to give to the Warrick County School Corporation on Friday, Dec. 15.

According to Board Policy -- Code 5600, the Warrick County School Corporation has a charge policy in place to help students that have an occasional need for assistance with their meal funds. Middle school students may charge up to $10 to their account. After the $10 limit is reached or after the account debt remains unpaid for 30 days, no meals and no alternatives will be provided. A similar policy stands for the elementary students, except they are allowed to charge up to $20 to their account. After their $20 limit has been unpaid for 30 days, the student will receive an alternative meal consisting of a peanut butter sandwich or cheese sandwich if there is a peanut allergy on file and then fruit and milk, at a cost of $40 cents, which would be added to the students meal account. Adults and high school students are not allowed to charge food or drinks to their account.

But Warrick County School Corporation Food and Nutrition Director Shenae Rowe said that they technically don't follow through with the policy of not giving kids meals due to their lunch debt.

"We feel like it's not the elementary kids fault," she said. "We want them to get the full meal, so with the money that's collected, the students are all still getting fed a meal in elementary school. That money helps so that the parents don't get turned over to a school corporation attorney."

Rowe said the money owed often fluctuates.

"Like today maybe a parent pays $100 in their kids account, but then I was over at a school today and as soon as they got rang up it was just like negative, negative, negative," she said. "No net is just a hard thing right now for families with the holidays going on to come up with the money."

Rowe said that the current meal debt all of the Warrick County schools is $4,505.68 -- $27.10 is owed at Boonville High School; $26.31 is owed at Castle High School; $74.25 is owed at Tecumseh High School; $327.55 is owed at Boonville Middle School; $142.25 is owed at Castle North Middle School; $331.10 is owed at Castle South Middle School; $290.37 is owed at John H. Castle Elementary; $488.15 is owed at Chandler Elementary; $139.49 is owed at Elberfeld Elementary; $456.68 is owed is Loge Elementary; $79.28 is owed at Lynnville Elementary; $1,018.46 is owed at Newburgh Elementary; $290.12 is owed at Oakdale Elementary; $591.50 is owed at Sharon Elementary; $48.20 is owed at Tennyson Elementary; and $147.68 is owed at Yankeetown Elementary.

"We've been up as high as $36,000, probably in the last three to six years" Rowe said. "So we are pleased that we are where we are at right now."

Both Rowe and Mitchell said that school lunch debt is a national problem.

"That families are constantly facing, struggling to make ends meet," Mitchell said. "And there are people that fall in the cracks too. I mean not everyone. A lot of children qualify for reduced lunches but then there are families that may also make $10 more than what the government says, so that doesn't mean they aren't struggling."

Rowe said the donations from the Warrick County Lunch Buddies are so important because the food and nutrition department is self supporting, meaning that they don't any receive money from the school corporation.

"So we rely on funds that parents pay for meals to be able to pay our employees and provide quality food and nutritious food for the kids," she said. "So all these donations really help towards going toward the parents having not to be at risk of being any more financial crisis."

Mitchell said that she realizes that there may be people who try and take advantage of what money the Warrick County Lunch Buddies is offering.

"But our strategy, is that there are always going to be people like that," she said. "But we're not going to focus on that. We will do what we can to help out and hopefully most people will do the right thing and take responsibility as much as they can for their own children."

Rowe said she is thankful Mitchell started Warrick County School Lunch Buddies.

"To have people like Melinda and other community members want to come and help out," she said, "it really helps out the families in the community."

Rowe said she will ultimately be the one deciding how the donations will be distributed throughout the school system, but said she only tries to be fair.

"So we try to be specific on how that money is going to pay off and not just give it to everyone," she said. "We look at counselors and teachers and make sure that we look at kids who may have illnesses in the family, job loss, things like that, to make sure that it goes to the right people."

Mitchell said she's planning on getting an update each month of the number of money owed to the school corp.

"So we can keep ahead of this as best as we can," she said. "As the months progress, to the end of the school year."

If anyone would like to donate to the Warrick County Lunch Buddies, contact the Rowe at 812-897-1341.

"All help is greatly needed and greatly appreciated," Mitchell said. "And I do believe that we can get this taken care of by the end of the school year, so we can start next semester with a fresh slate."

Marisa Patwa is a graduate of the University of Evansville with a degree in journalism and minor in political science.

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