A 14-year-old Austin boy is raising money to wipe out lunch debt in Austin district schools.
The Austin American-Statesman reports Ben Hofer, an eighth grader at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, decided to tackle the lunch debt for three Austin district campuses for a school service project, Project Citizen.
The original goal for his semester-long "LunchCounts!" project was to raise $3,200 to pay off the lunch debts at Akins High, Parades Middle School and Blazier Elementary, because the campuses had among the highest balances in the Austin district. But Ben exceeded the amount and now is trying to reach $7,000 to help pay off the debts at more schools.
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"I can see how having money some days and not having money some days can be very stressful for the kids and their parents," Ben said. "Lunch is essential for your day. And the school loses money because of it. It's just bad all around."
Lunch debt is accrued when students who haven't paid off their account balances are provided courtesy meals. Students are allowed to charge up to three meals to their accounts before the courtesy meals kick in. In previous years, Austin district students who didn't have money in their lunch accounts were provided a peanut butter or a sunflower seed butter sandwich. More recently, the school district decided to offer the students the same meal being served to the other students, which costs up to $3.05 per student. The school district absorbs that cost annually, which is estimated to be $450,000 this year.
About 53 percent of the district's students receive free or reduced priced meals from the district. Students who receive free meals don't accrue debt, but those who are eligible for reduced price meal, as well as those who pay full price, can.
As of Wednesday, the school district's balance for courtesy lunches was $16,613.16. The balances change daily as parents pay off existing balances and other lunch debt is accrued.
Regardless of the students' payment status, the district wants to ensure every student gets a healthy meal, said Anneliese Tanner, the Austin district's director of food services. And there remain students who don't qualify for assistance, but whose families are still under financial strain, making it difficult to pay for school meals, she said.
"There are still families who are struggling to make ends meet who don't qualify for meal benefits," Tanner said. "We appreciate the generosity of our community so much, helping us address the hunger issues in Austin. It helps us provide a healthy, tasty meal for students every day."
Providing the students the same meal as their peer ensures "there is no stigma," she said.
Two years ago, community members came together to pay off the Austin district's student lunch debt, reaching the district's $10,000 goal within 24 hours, and doubling the amount within a week. The district continues to raise money through that same digital fundraising page, as negative balances remain an issue.
On May 14, Ben will join the other eighth-grade students at St. Andrew's to showcase their service projects during the school's civic fair.
"I'm going to try to do it yearly," he said of his "LunchCounts!" project. "That'd be really cool."