Members of LifePointe Christian Church in Toano have cleared the school lunch debt for students at Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools and York County’s Waller Mill Elementary as part of their “Operation: ZERO” campaign.
Phillip Murdock, the church’s lead minister, handed out checks ahead of the new year totaling nearly $4,000 to cover more than $1,500 of debt at WJCC schools, $1,000 at Waller Mill, as well as any outstanding accounts at New Kent County Public Schools.
And, this is just the beginning of the campaign.
Murdock said with the support of the community and the church’s congregation, LifePointe also hopes to pay off lunch debts for neighboring Charles City County Public Schools and the rest of York County School Division’s accounts totaling approximately $60,000.
“We have about a dozen or so children in our church that go to Waller Mill…if we bring in more than [$4,000] — which I believe we will — then maybe we can also help with some of these other localities,” he said.
For the nearly 600 WJCC students who had acquired school lunch debt, Eileen Cox, a spokeswoman at the school district, said they would never be denied food but served an “alternative lunch,” or a sandwich with fruit and milk, while Child Nutrition Services hashes out a plan for repayment with parents or guardians.
“The goal is to never embarrass or make the child uncomfortable which is why Child Nutrition Services talks to the parents or the adult,” Cox said. “Families work hard to pay outstanding lunch debts but we’re always appreciative of organizations stepping in to fill that gap.”
Before learning about one father’s initiative to clear lunch debt in Seattle schools, Murdock admitted, with reduced or free lunch programs available for qualifying families, he didn’t realize this was a needed assistance for area families.
“One of the things we learned when we were delivering checks is sometimes families can be new to the area, accrue debt, later qualify for reduced or free lunch but it’s not retroactive…it does not erase any debt from before,” he said.
Murdock said he’d read reports of schools around the country sending parents to collections for unpaid lunch debt, withholding grades, or even requiring children to wear “I owe” bracelets.
He reiterated the campaign’s message: “The child is not at fault,” albeit they’d be the ones to experience the embarrassing consequences.
“Maybe they had some level of anxiety every day when they went to lunch because they didn’t know whether or not they were going to be given this alternative lunch, or they were worried about their friends hearing they have debt,” Murdock said. “It’s something that would’ve taken the enjoyment out of that part of their day and maybe we’ve given that back to them a little bit.”
During the holiday season when parents can become overwhelmed with financial obligations, Murdock said he also hopes the action has “taken off their plates” at least one of their stressors.
“Overall my hope is that these people know they matter. As a church, we hope they know they matter to God, that they matter to us we don’t know who they are but this is one way to say we care.”
The church will continue to collect contributions for Operation: ZERO as Cox said the dollar amount of student lunch debt fluctuates day to day throughout the entire school year.
To contribute to the LifePointe Christian Church’s initiative to eliminate student lunch debt click here and either write “make it zero,” or select “erase school lunch debt” before submitting the payment.