LOUISVILLE, Ohio — A Northeast Ohio school district is trying to make sure students never go hungry or feel embarrassed if they can't pay for lunch.
According to the School Nutrition Association, about 75 percent of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. That means sometimes kids are singled out and given an alternate lunch because they are out of money.
Avoiding alternate lunches and embarrassment
Jan Williams started in food service as a line worker, and the policy where she worked stated that if students couldn't pay, workers had to take away their lunches.
"I couldn't do that, so a lot of times I would just reach into my own pocket. I would pay for their lunch," Williams said. "Most of the other employees that I worked with would do the same."
Now, as food service director for Louisville City Schools, Williams has found a solution, based on her own experiences and speaking with her staff members. That's what led to the idea of the Full Belly account.
"I wanted to create something that I didn’t have to ask [workers] to do that," Williams said. "I didn’t want to have to ask them to do that and they didn’t want to do it either."
Before, when kids would come through the lunch line, they would bring their tray to the front and type in their account number on a keypad. If they didn’t have enough money in their account, they were allowed to charge up to $10 and after that point, they would be given an alternate lunch of a cheese sandwich. Now, the Full Belly account allows them to get a standard lunch like everyone else.
"I have a problem with alternate lunches because, I mean, that just kind of screams, ‘I don’t have any money,'" Williams said. "Everybody sees they’ve got a cheese sandwich, so that can be embarrassing."
When the district posted on Facebook about the Full Belly account, letting people know they could donate, some people responded with stories about children being embarrassed. But Williams said that's why this program exists, so that doesn't happen to any other child.
"If the parents, a couple days later, put money in, we can always charge it right back to that parents’ account so that we’re really only using it for those that are really in need," Williams explained. "But it’s a stopgap to prevent anybody from not getting a lunch."
At Louisville Elementary School, which serves students in K-5, workers are no longer providing alternate lunches.
"My ladies can just give them their lunch, they can move on with their day, they don’t even have to be told that we’ve used it," Williams said.
Helping kids focus on learning
The district is working to do that for middle and high school students as well, as the Full Belly account continues to receives hundreds of dollars in donations from the community.
"I can’t imagine being in that position, wondering if you have enough money in your account, and then getting to the end and just having those questions," Matthew Stanley, assistant principal at Louisville Elementary, said.
Stanley said the Full Belly account takes the burden off of children and lets them focus on learning.
"Kids can’t learn at their best unless they’re well-fed and hydrated and rested," Stanley said.
Meanwhile, adults at the school can reach out to parents to address the issue and any other issues that might be going on at home.
"It’s all done behind the scenes and the kids don’t even realize it’s happening," Williams said. "They’re just getting a lunch, so that they can fill their bellies so that they can learn for the day."
"Our teachers do such an amazing job providing safe and caring environments in their classroom, and we just are so thankful that our cafeteria staff are able to now do the exact same thing and make those kids feel safe and cared for, even when they’re going through the lunch line," Stanley said.
Anyone interested in donating to the Full Belly account can write a check to the Louisville Food Service program and put "Full Belly" in the memo.