By Amanda Rogers
This week, the parents of 2,503 students in the Mansfield school district will receive an email telling them that people they have likely never met just bought their kids’ lunch. In some cases, a lot of their lunches.
Common Ground Network, a local non-profit made up of churches and civic groups, paid off a $21,975.80 food bill that MISD students accumulated before the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past 2 ½ years, all students have received free breakfasts and lunches as part of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, but those will end when the students go back to school in August.
And a lot of students would have been going back to negative balances in the lunchroom.
Except for Common Ground Network.
“We wanted to make sure that all families had a clean slate,” said Shane Cavitt, president of Common Ground and local compassion pastor at Rush Creek Church.
Rita Denton, executive director of student nutrition for the MISD, was “blown away” when she heard about the donation.
“I could not be more thankful,” Denton said. “I think it will open a lot of eyes. I think it will make an impact.”
Denton said she could not wait to tell her peers at surrounding school districts.
“I have not heard a story about how an organization has come in and cleared the account,” she said.
Students who go through the breakfast or lunch line, but do not have sufficient funds to cover their meals, are allowed to run up a debt up to $25 each, Denton explained.
“The cash register will not allow it to ring up more than $25 (in negative balance),” Denton said. “At that point, they check to see if there is money in the Angel Fund account (donations that help make up negative balances for student meals).”
If there aren’t funds available, the student receives a courtesy meal, which is a turkey sandwich, fruit and milk. A lot of students, especially the older ones, will not take the courtesy meal because their classmates will know that they got the meal for people with a negative balance, Cavitt said.
“They’re not singled out, but they get a limited choice of meals,” Cavitt said. “We want to make sure all kids and families are on the same level.”
Debt from students who graduated or left the district also contributed to the $21,975.80 student nutrition bill, Denton said. Those funds have to be repaid, Denton said, and the money would have to come out of the district’s general fund.
The school district’s general fund pays for things like employee salaries, curriculum and technology.
“(Student) debt is not allowed to be paid off by the federal fund,” she said.
And students who had debt in 2020 would have been returning to that debt this fall.
“The debt follows you. If you have $10 in the account, it follows you to the next grade. If you have negative $5, it follows you. In the spring of 2020, there were a lot of negative accounts, and the debt has been sitting there since spring 2020.”
Many parents may not have realized that their children had a negative balance, Denton said, and want to pay it forward by donating to their school’s Angel Fund. Anyone can donate, she said.
For other parents, clearing the debt will be a blessing, especially for some families that have more than one child in the district with a negative balance.
“The plan is to email the families to let them know that if you had a negative balance, now you don’t,” Denton said. “If they have two or three kids, they will receive two or three emails. It will clear that weight as they get ready to back to school.”
Mansfield, Texas, is a booming city, nestled between Fort Worth and Dallas, but with a personality all its own. The city’s 76,247 citizens enjoy an award-winning school district, vibrant economy, historic downtown, prize-winning park system and community focus spread across 37 square miles. The Mansfield Record is dedicated to reporting city and school news, community happenings, police and fire news, business, food and restaurants, parks and recreation, library, historical archives and special events. The city’s only online newspaper launched in September 2020 and will offer introductory advertising rates for the first three months at three different rates.