'Feel-good' donation wipes out Red Lion students' lunch debt

FILE - This Jan. 25, 2017 file photo shows a lunch served at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y., where all meals are now free under the federal Community Eligibility Provision. A donor inspired by a tweet raised money to pay off lunch debt in districts around the country, as well as thousands of dollars in overdue lunch fees at other schools in the Kingston district. (AP Photo/Mary Esch, FIle)

Red Lion Area School District's foundation, in the spirit of the holidays, covered all unpaid student lunch balances that accrued this year.

The nonprofit arm of the district donated more than $3,000 on Friday, Dec. 13, which was enough to pay off debts through Nov. 22. 

"Just in that time, it grew significantly," said foundation board member Lori Baker, noting the debt had already jumped back up a couple hundred dollars by Friday.

Red Lion is one of many districts across the state dealing with exponential growth in lunch debt following state revisions to the public school code in 2017 and 2018 that outlawed "lunch shaming."

More:Meal debt grows in York County schools following lunch shaming regulations

The practice of identifying students publicly in some way for not being able to pay for lunch has been challenged across the nation, with California's legislature also passing a law against it this October.

Under Pennsylvania's regulations, schools can no longer deny or give alternative meals to students with unpaid balances. Red Lion gives every student a meal, but they are not permitted to buy a la carte items or get extra milk or bags of chips, officials said.

The district's debt "easily quadrupled" since the law changed, said Red Lion child nutrition manager Erin Griffin, adding that her business manager preferred not to release specific numbers.

But the total does continue to grow, and it has roughly doubled since last year, Griffin said, estimating a couple hundred families have debt of some kind.

"It's very concerning," she said, but Red Lion has not yet turned to a collection agency like some other York County districts.

Debt had reached $23,035 by the end of the 2018-19 school year in South Western School District, which contracted with a collection agency in October to recover unpaid balances from families of students who had graduated.

More:South Western district turns to collection agency for lunch debt

More:South Western lunch debt collection elicits outcry

That district had $5,000 in outstanding payments from graduates, or those who had moved out of the district, at the time.

South Eastern School District also authorized use of a collection agency should its debt get too high, and West Shore School District started using one after its debt grew to about $17,000 by Aug. 21.

Elsewhere in the state, Wyoming Valley West School District, in Luzerne County, made national news when it threatened parents — four of whom owed at least $450 each — with sending their children to foster care after overdue bills reached $22,000.

To avoid more drastic measures, some districts have turned to donations as one possible relief for families who could be struggling to pay.

New York City-based writer Ashley C. Ford two years ago inspired donors from several states to raise thousands to cover local student meal debt. And officials from South Western and West Shore also noted they have received donations.

More:No free lunch: Donors erase students’ debts

In this Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017 photo, Ashley C. Ford poses for a photo in New York. Ford felt driven to act by a sad fact of life in the nation’s school cafeterias: Kids with unpaid lunch accounts are often embarrassed with a substitute meal of a cold cheese sandwich and a carton of milk. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Baker said she heard about Red Lion's growing debt from school social workers and came up with the idea for the donation when she saw another state had done something similar.

"This wasn’t in our budget — it was just a feel-good sort of thing," she said.

Sometimes parents give money to their children but those students forget to pay the bill, Baker said. Griffin said the smaller amounts, about $20, usually get paid, but some bills top $100.

Baker said she would like the foundation to donate again, but she also said she hopes other organizations and donors will step up. The district already received some money from private donors as of Friday, she said.

"Really, what our hope is, people will pay it forward," she said.