Covenant to Pay Lunch Debt for All AISD Students in Need

Covenant Presbyterian Church will pay off the lunch debt that has accrued for all students in the Austin Independent School District (AISD) during the 2022-23 school year. The church will also give the district funds to ensure that no student accrues additional debt during the remainder of this school year.

All told, Covenant will give AISD just over $24,000 to erase student lunch debt, which is a fraction of the $200,000 surplus the Mission Committee had at the end of the year to fund projects outside of those in their 2023 budget. The challenge is for the committee to find the right needs.

Mission committee members had many discussions about where to direct the additional funds. “What we ultimately came down to was that feeding kids should never be an issue for a school district or a family to have to worry about,” said Mission Director Whitney Bell. “If there is something Covenant can do to help make sure that kids are fed, we should do it.”

“The idea that a child could be prevented from fully participating in their school because of debt they accrue when eating lunch ought to disturb us,” Senior Pastor Thomas Daniel said. “I am proud we are stepping up to that fill this gap.”

What Are the Needs?

Whitney said she always has her “ear to the ground” to figure out the needs of our city. “I had been hearing over and over again about the school lunch debt issue.”

After a conversation with Associate Pastor Jill Williams, and Jill’s enthusiastic response to the idea, Whitney contacted AISD. She was connected to Christina Cowern, AISD revenue accountant for food services, who handles all student lunch debt questions.

Whitney learned that AISD does a good job of managing student lunch debt. According to the district’s website, an elementary or middle school student may charge up to three meals; high school students may charge up to two meals. When students reach the charge limit, they continue to receive courtesy meals. There is no cap on the number of courtesy meals a student may receive.

But, Whitney said, AISD does not have the funds to pay for the lunches. When available, donated funds are used to offset negative account balances. “The district basically has a Go-Fund-Me page because they want to be able to continue to feed these kids,” she said.

Who Is Missing Lunch?

A number of AISD schools participate in Community Eligible Provision (CEP) programs. Students enrolled in those schools automatically receive free meals. Families with students in other AISD schools must apply for free or reduced lunches. According to the School Nutrition Association, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Children from families with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.

 “A family of four bringing in a total of $50,000 a year doesn’t qualify for lunch at a reduced cost,” Whitney said. “This is a huge gap … especially considering the cost of living in Austin. The majority of kids accruing debt are from poor working families.”

AISD students get behind on paying for lunch for many reasons. “It could be that their families haven’t learned about this resource or that they simply can’t afford lunch. These families are trying to figure out rent, groceries, medical issues – all these other things – so it’s easy for school lunch to fall off their radar,” Whitney said.

How Will Covenant Designate Funds?

The Mission Committee funds will first be used to erase all current lunch debt. The cost is slightly over $14,000.

The rest of the donation – $10,000 – will go toward the oldest debt first, as Cowern recommended. “If we receive a donation with no special instructions, we apply funds to accounts that are more than a month old and wait to pay off more current balances,” Cowern said. “Doing it this way helps stretch the donations AISD receives and ensures the funds are being used as intended – to families in need instead of to those who intend to pay.”

Filling a Gap

“Our hope is we fill a gap that other folks haven’t been able to fill, that kids have one less thing to be concerned about,” Whitney said.” We hope Covenant shows our school district that we love and care for all students, especially the kids stuck in the middle who can’t afford lunch but may not qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“This is truly such a tangible way to be a love letter from God to the city of Austin. We’re really excited to love and serve families in this way,” Whitney said.

Thomas agreed, “The fact that this is a gift given to every student who qualifies – no strings attached – embodies the free and unmerited grace we have all received and is the foundation of our Christian faith,” Thomas said.  “Who knows how it might spread the Gospel to people  in parts of our city that might not otherwise know about the love of Jesus.”

The Mission Committee continues to discern how to spend the rest of the funds.