Local businesses raise $8,000 to wipe out Summit School District elementary school lunch debt | SummitDaily.com

Local businesses raise $8,000 to wipe out Summit School District elementary school lunch debt

Red Buffalo Cafe owner Erin Young, left, looks on as Sunshine Cafe owner Mike Spry speaks during the regular Summit School District board meeting on Thursday, Sept. 20. The Summit Chamber raised $8,000 to wipe out all existing Summit elementary school lunch debt.

Summit County sits high above the world with all its beauty and wealth, which is why it may be surprising to know that some Summit kids have a hard time paying for school lunches. Summit School District's lunch debt for the year reached nearly $8,000 in its elementary schools before a group of local business owners volunteered to raise funds to wipe the debt out.

The Exit 205 Chapter of the Summit County Chamber of Commerce — which represents businesses in the town of Silverthorne, Dillon and Keystone — presented an $8,000 check to the district during its regular school board meeting on Thursday. The money will pay off all lunch debt for the district's six elementary schools, with additional funds going toward paying future debt and attempts to provide a long-term solution to avoid "lunch-shaming."

Presenting the check were Silverthorne business owners Erin Young, owner of the Red Buffalo Café, and Mike Spry, owner of Sunshine Café and board member representing the entire Summit Chamber. The gift included proceeds from liquor and food sales during the String Cheese Incident concerts at Dillon Amphitheater this summer.

Young said it was important to her, as a self-described "food-stamp kid," to make sure kids and families in her community don't have to worry about paying for food while in school or be "lunch-shamed" with an alternative lunch that might stigmatize kids among their peers.

"We love our community, and we love that they support our businesses so much," Young told the school board before presenting the check. "Our community means so much to us, we wanted to help our kids. Especially with food."

Until recently, students who had more than $50 worth of lunch debt were required to eat a smaller, barebones alternative lunch until the debt was paid. While the Exit 205 chapter worked on raising funds to wipe away the debt, the school district ended the alternative lunch policy and will now give full lunches to all elementary school students, regardless of their ability to pay.

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"Families were receiving phone calls from debt collectors over their lunch debt," Young said. "But now, at least for the next year, students and their families won't have to worry about those phone calls or get a different lunch."

The issue of lunch debt and "lunch shaming" has been a contentious one in Colorado and across the nation. Iowa, New Mexico and New York have passed statewide legislation to stop lunch-shaming by providing full meals to students regardless of ability to pay. Last year, Denver Public Schools started its own policy guaranteeing a hot, full meal to all students under all circumstances. However, after the policy was implemented, lunch debt in the 92,000 pupil district soared from $13,000 the year before to $365,000.

DPS admits that the skyrocketing cost is unsustainable, and has been urging families to apply for federal free or reduced lunch assistance to cover the costs, as it is free money the schools are missing out on to pay for lunch.

Spry said that the Chamber understood that wiping Summit's elementary school lunch debt for this year was just a temporary solution.

"This a little bit of a Band-Aid to fix the immediate problem," Spry said. "But now with that behind us, we hope we can work with the schools and families in our community to come up with a solution going forward."

Young said that some families, especially immigrant families, do not apply for those federal programs, often due to the fear of government reprisal for their immigration status. Young wants families to know that getting those benefits will not get them into trouble with immigration authorities.

However, she understands the fear given the current political climate, and wants the state and local government, businesses, families and the schools to come together for a solution that can make sure kids never have to worry about food before, during, or after school hours.

"When kids are in school, they should be learning and not worried about going hungry," Young said.

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