The school’s policy does not allow children with negative lunch account balances to purchase a la carte items, such as the ice cream mentioned on this particular Friday.
King said she went to bed Thursday with the matter on her heart and prayed for guidance Friday. King contacted the Lebanon City Schools central office to find out how much was owed, then paid the outstanding $411.15 lunch debt via NeighborhoodBridges.org, a group that collects money in these situations and forwards it to the schools.
“I’ve been that parent with balances. I totally understand, but the way (the school’s message) was worded wasn’t right,” said King, the mother of six children. “I don’t know a soul in Lebanon, but I’m glad I was able to help. I love kids and it doesn’t matter where you’re from to help out. It’s a God-given gift to give back to others.”
So called school “lunch-shaming” has been a national topic of discussion in recent years. If parents who don’t qualify for free lunch don’t fund their students’ account, schools face a decision. Most end up giving the children in those cases some very basic, no-frills food to eat. In some school districts, donation funds have been set up to help children in those situations. Others have placed the responsibility on parents to get their accounts up-to-date.
District cites poor communication from its end
The initial message sent from Donovan Elementary officials Thursday stated, “A student must have money on their account to purchase an ice cream. If a student has a negative balance, they will not be able to purchase an ice cream even if they bring their $1 for ice cream.”
The initial message also said students are only permitted to purchase one ice cream and are not permitted to buy ice cream for a friend. The schools don’t accept cash payments at the register.
The issue went viral on the internet with thousands of people locally and across the nation expressing outrage or weighing in.
The school, which serves third and fourth graders, sent out a message at 9:30 a.m. Friday apologizing for the way the information was communicated.
“We understand this post lacked empathy. We are sorry for the way the message was communicated,” the school district post said. “The wording lacked empathy and sensitivity for students who have low or negative meal account balances. We work very hard to provide school lunches to students by removing barriers and eliminating the stigma associated with the lunch assistance program. This post inadvertently sent the message that we would embarrass students or turn them away for an issue outside their control. The message fell short of our values as a district and we sincerely apologize.”
Lebanon City Schools Superintendent Isaac Seevers said the ice cream Friday was not a special event and the district has sent out messages in the past reminding parents about negative balances in school lunch accounts.
“We take full responsibility and we will be providing treats for all the children today,” Seevers said. “We appreciate the outpouring for the kids.”
Seevers said he was “very surprised with the response and how widespread it became.”
“The message fell short of building community, building a respectful community, and building a responsible community and is not reflective of our district values,” he said.
King was not the only person to get involved. As of 4 p.m. Friday, more than $8,252 was donated through NeighborhoodBridges.org to support the students and families in this situation.
Lebanon community responds
Several people took to social media Friday, encouraging Lebanon residents to patronize King’s restaurant after her display of kindness to the Donovan students.
Former mayor and retired Lebanon teacher Amy Brewer called King’s gesture “in one word, amazing. Never doubt the goodness in the world. ... I want to also thank all the individuals, organizations and businesses who everyday do something for someone else. Big or small it matters!”
Kristen Eggers, a Lebanon councilwoman, said she would contact the school district to find a way to prevent this situation from happening in the future. The mother of four children said she understands the district has rules, but that some kids may not know if they have a negative account balance.
“The whole situation is sad,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for the school district and I support them 100%. It’s a no-win situation, but I am glad that people and businesses are willing to pay these fees.”
Lebanon Mayor Mark Messer, a parent of a fourth-grader, said he was “appalled” by the tone and wording of the message, but thanked Seevers and his staff for taking ownership and fixing the situation.” Messer also praised the community for “immediately jumping into action to make sure there wasn’t a single child put in the position described in the initial post.”
Regardless of Friday’s episode, outstanding lunch debts remains an issue, something Seevers said is not unique to Lebanon.
Last school year, Seevers said the school district finished year with $40,000 in school lunch debt, something that had to be covered with general fund dollars from taxpayers. He said the 2023-24 school year, which has been in session 25 days, was already tracking at about $4,000 in school lunch debt as of Friday morning.
About 25% of Lebanon’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income.
“We have community groups such as the MLK Community Coalition of Lebanon, area churches and other community groups that accept donations and forward them to the school district to help students and families,” Seevers said. “We encourage people to donate to Neighborhood Bridges who sends those funds to reduce negative balances.”