Fairfield school lunch payment program halted after it raises fraction of need

The Lunch it Forward program has helped nearly 400 elementary school students in Fairfield and Fairfield Twp., but the program is being forced to stop for the remainder of the school year.

Dougie & Ray's helped pay for more than 4,200 lunches in the Fairfield elementary schools and Sacred Heart Elementary with its Lunch it Forward program that launched in October.

But the demand was a lot more than anticipated, and the program received only a tiny fraction of the funds it needed to continue, said Dougie & Ray’s founder Ted McDaniel. He said “the only saving grace” for this year would be a $10,000 to $15,000 investment.

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“We know the program has helped our students and families in need, and we know our community sees the value in it,” said Fairfield City Schools’ Director of Student Services Jeff Madden. “Staff, parents and community members are still encouraged to donate to Lunch it Forward as we are optimistic the program can be brought back in the future.”

McDaniel said business and community donations allowed for Dougie & Ray’s, a charity that supports kids in need in the 10,000-student Butler County school district, to meet the demands only until recently as “the program did not gain self-sustainability through community involvement.”

Lunch it Forward was created to make sure every elementary student in the city and township ate a full lunch, regardless of their financial situation, officials said. If a child’s lunch account was in the red, the cashier would press a button and the balance would be marked paid by the “Dougie and Ray’s Lunch It Forward” program.

When families would re-fill their student’s lunch account, they were asked to pay back what was covered to help another child avoid any embarrassment of not having enough lunch money, or required to buy the “alternative lunch,” which is either a cheese or peanut butter sandwich with a fruit and vegetable.

The program launched on Oct. 10 for kids in kindergarten through 5th grade in Fairfield Schools and Sacred Heart and is designed to help those who don’t qualify for the free-and-reduced lunch program. About 43 percent of Fairfield’s student population is on the free-and-reduced lunch program.

“An integral part of Lunch it Forward was to create self-sustainability of the funds through families donating funds back into the program when used, families in the community who could donate would, and local business support,” McDaniel said.

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Out of the hundreds of elementary school families, only $15 to $20 per week was donated back to the program. Dougie & Ray’s paid more than $12,000 in lunch fees via their business and community donations.

Madden said Lunch it Forward filled a void for the district and will work with Dougie & Ray's to restart the program. Donations are still be accepted for the program, but for now, will be used to relaunch the program next for the 2020-2021 school year.

“Generating over $12,000 in a few months is no easy task and it could not have been done without his support and the support of teachers, parents, businesses and other community members who financially contributed to this cause,” Madden said.

McDaniel said the need was underestimated. They planned to invest $1,200 a month, but the need “exploded” after New Year’s when it cost $1,000 a week and the demands were increasing, he said.

“We couldn’t sustain that usage,” McDaniel said.

The plan is to sit down and “figure out how we can make it sustainable.”

“We’re not walking away from it,” he said. “We want the program to be there. We’re going to sit down and think of ways to possibly realign the program, do certain things, change it up.”

Madden said the district will transition back to offering an alternative lunch at $1 for students that do not have lunch money.

Dougie & Ray’s offers other programs in support of the Fairfield City Schools, including distributing backpacks and shoes, providing Christmas to Fairfield School families in need, and supplies a Nurse’s Closet at schools for emergency clothes for students in case of accidents.

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