Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the initial PTA donation to the Food for Thought program covers the cost of 50 lunches.
BROOKINGS – One good deed begets another.
Over at Hillcrest Elementary School, one woman’s dedication to the welfare of students has inspired a program to help address the same thing she cares about the most: hungry kids.
Dawn Waldner has worked in Brookings elementary schools for about nine years, first as a supervisor at Medary and for the past six years as a lunch lady at Hillcrest. Throughout it all, she’s been dedicated to the welfare of children.
Specifically, Waldner’s worked to make sure that no child gets served an alternate meal because of lunch debt. She still remembers it happening when she was at Medary as a supervisor years ago: “When I found out that one day a child had to have a cheese sandwich, it broke my heart. I said no.”
She took the student back in, paid the debt herself and got the student a regular meal.
This is something she still does when the need arises. As the one responsible for swiping the children’s student identification cards as they go finish up their trip through the lunch line, it’s part of her duty to let kids know when their family’s lunch account is getting low. If things get serious enough, she’ll chip in enough money to make sure that child won’t have to worry about needing an alternate lunch.
“It’s like Dawn has said to us many times: It’s not the child’s fault” that for whatever reason the lunch accounts aren’t as full as they ought to be, Hillcrest PTA President Trish Matson Buus said.
“Sometimes it’s just that ‘money’s tight this month, and we’ve had this happen.’ It’s just little things. But I tell them never to think of it as a handout. It’s a hand-up because someday you’ll be able to pay it forward. And that’s important. It’s little things. The electricity bill was higher than expected this month. Everybody budgets, and life happens,” Waldner said.
Waldner’s dedication to the wellbeing of students caught the attention of the Hillcrest PTA during this year’s Hillfest, held April 1.
As a way to further Waldner’s personal mission, they set up Food for Thought, which takes in donations into the PTA’s account to send along to the district to forgive lunch money debt.
PTA members decided to start things off by donating enough to cover 50 lunches in honor of Waldner: $132.50. Since they began and announced Food for Thought in the April 27 edition of The Brookings Register, they’ve raised $2,340, shattering their modest $1,000 goal they had in mind for the remainder of the school year.
“It’s so cool. A little old lady just walked in and wrote a check for $500 the other day, and a business wrote a check for $500. It’s amazing,” Matson Buus said.
“It just brings on tears,” Waldner added. “It warms my heart to know we’ve had $2,400 deposited. It’s so nice. So nice. When you figure the meals, each meal is $2.65, that’s a lot of meals. It makes me smile to know there’s that many meals sitting there to draw from.”
Whether it’s her or someone else at the school, there are great strides taken beyond personal charity and Food for Thought to ensure that families in tough financial situations get the help they need.
Families are first notified when lunch money funds are getting low when they have about $20 remaining. The family is sent an email and – a recent addition that’s gotten good feedback – texts are sent.
When funds reach $15 or less, cashiers let the students know when they’re paying for their lunch.
At about $5 or less, low balance notifications are sent from the district to the schools to then be given to the family.
Again, since there is no written policy, there is a bit of variation that goes along with the process, but communication is and always has been key to keeping lunch accounts balanced.
Only in the most extreme of instances are alternate lunches – consisting of a cheese sandwich and milk – given to the student.
Although free and reduced lunches are an option for families, it doesn’t catch everyone. Just because a family doesn’t qualify for that aid doesn’t mean they’re immune to financial pressures.
As is, the school district does not have a formal lunch policy simply because those times when accounts are so low for so long as to warrant alternate meals don’t happen all that often, according to Child Nutrition Director Laura Duba. In her four years at her position, she believes they’ve had to resort to cheese sandwich alternate meals perhaps 10 times.
For one of the recent instances, she said the lunch account debt for the entire family amounted to more than $100. Thankfully, though, these cases are rare, and help is available in getting the families the resources and the time they need to pay.
“I never want to see a child go without a meal… We’re willing to work with families. If they have a negative balance, can you make a payment of $5 or $10 a week until it’s brought up again?” Duba said.
Otherwise, members of the community have been known to make donations to the district in order to help struggling families pay off lunch debt.
Money donated to either Food for Thought or the school district lunch program will carry over from year to year. People can donate to Food for Thought by dropping off checks written to the Hillcrest PTA with “Food for Thought” written in the memo line at the front office of the Hillcrest Elementary School or else mail it to the school at 304 15th Ave., Brookings.
Otherwise, people can also write checks directly to the school district’s lunch account system by writing checks to “Brookings School Lunch” and dropping the check off at any of the schools or at the district offices at 2130 Eighth St. S.
Contact Eric Sandbulte at firstname.lastname@example.org.