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Oklahoma fundraising campaign hopes to wipe out over $76,000 in school lunch debt

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Oklahoma fundraising campaign hopes to wipe out over $76,000 in school lunch debt

Nov 29, 2023 | 6:29 am ET
By Nuria Martinez-Keel
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Oklahoma fundraising campaign hopes to wipe out over $76,000 in school lunch debt
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A fundraiser aims to cover thousands of dollars in student lunch debt in seven Oklahoma school districts. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished without a Getty subscription.)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A fundraiser aims to relieve more than $76,000 in lunch debt for Oklahoma students, as struggles with outstanding meal fees continue in schools.

That total would cover overdue cafeteria bills from seven school districts across the state. The largest of them, Stillwater Public Schools, reported $37,003 in student lunch debt from the previous school year.

Two public school advocacy organizations, the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition and Oklahomans for Public Education, started the fundraiser on the donation website Givebutter

Both groups have a substantial following on Facebook. That’s where some of the conversations about covering lunch debt began, said Angela Clark Little, an administrator for the Oklahomans for Public Education page.

“I didn’t realize the severity of it all until I started digging into it,” she said.

USDA expands universal school meal program for Oklahoma districts

The effort comes at a time when school lunch debt is back on the rise in Oklahoma. Students in public schools enjoyed a two-year reprieve from cafeteria costs during the COVID-19 pandemic when the federal government subsidized all school meals.

Universal free meals ended in 2022, prompting many schools to start billing for meals again. 

The Oklahoma Legislature considered a bill that would qualify an estimated 151,000 more students for free school meals, but it failed in the Senate. Lawmakers have the opportunity to revive the bill in 2024.

Erika Wright, a leader of the rural schools coalition, said she hopes to see the legislature take up the issue again.

“With that relief that we had during COVID and coming back from that, once that’s been gone it’s thrown everybody into a tailspin,” Wright said. “With this initiative, our goal is to just be able to be a helping hand to those families that are struggling.”

The Stillwater district has about 1,800 students with a negative balance on school lunch payments this year, spokesperson Barry Fuxa said. Most of those students owe an average of $3.32 each, but about 700 of them owe $20 or more.

The school district won’t turn children away from the cafeteria line for having a negative account balance, but the district could turn over a family’s outstanding debt to a collection agency at the end of the school year, Fuxa said.

That’s why the district encourages families to apply for free or reduced-price meals, which are available to households earning up to 185% of the federal poverty line.

“We’re happy to accept donations to pay off account balances, help district families navigate applying for free and reduced lunches, and to work with families on payment plans if they contact us,” Fuxa said. “Anything to help prevent the need to turn debt into a collection agency at the end of the school year.”

The fundraiser campaign has collected more than $2,500 as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Besides Stillwater, the other benefiting districts are Clinton Public Schools with $20,067 in lunch debt; Vanoss Public Schools needing $9,258; Lexington Public Schools with $4,650; Hayes Elementary from Enid Public Schools with $3,178; West Field Elementary from Edmond Public Schools in need of $1,282 and Blackwell Public Schools needing $1,173.

The fundraiser’s organizers said other districts are welcome to add their names to the list.