Every Kid Eats Initiative Helps Families With School Lunch Debt
Writer / Julie Yates
Photography Provided by Photog Boss Babe LLC by Charrie Stambaugh
Every Kid Eats of Johnson County (EKE) is an initiative that fights food insecurity by raising money to pay off school lunch debt in the Greenwood area. Although a free and reduced lunch assistance program exists for those who qualify, some students incur school lunch debt for several reasons. In some cases they might not be eligible for assistance at the start of a school year, but family situations can change. Parents may lose jobs or experience expensive medical challenges. Parents might not understand how to fill out the paperwork or even know the program is available.
Last November, Suzanne Fortenberry was perusing Facebook when a post caught her eye. Among all the Thanksgiving expressions of gratitude was an interesting suggestion. Someone proposed that instead of paying it forward by buying coffee for a person waiting in line at a cafe, consider going to a local school and donating that small amount to help pay off a student’s lunch debt.
Fortenberry, who has nephews who are students in Center Grove schools, reached out to Nicole Kemp, an active parent in the district. Kemp is on the Center Grove Education Foundation and substitute teaches in the district. With support from other concerned citizens, the two women created the EKE initiative.
A Facebook page was designed not only to raise awareness that the problem exists, but also to allow individuals to give directly to Center Grove schools. A link provided on the group’s Facebook page takes users to the Center Grove Angel Fund page. Then, other area school districts were included.
“We are happy to say that with the help of Shannon Maples, food and nutrition services director for Center Grove schools, we are in the process of fundraising for all six of the Johnson County school systems,” Fortenberry says. “After beginning with Center Grove, we progressed to Clark-Pleasant and then Greenwood. We hit our goal for Greenwood in February. This put us over $10,000 raised. The remaining three districts are Franklin Community Schools, Indian Creek Schools and Edinburgh Community Schools.”
When Fortenberry began investigating the problem, she found the lunch debt in Center Grove ranged from $5 to $600 per student. However, the most common figure was in between. While a child is never turned away, she suspected that some of the older children, aware that debt is growing, perhaps skip lunch.
“A 15-year-old kid who knows his family is having money problems might not eat,” she says. “These students need to have lunch to be productive, learn and do their best in school.”
Fortenberry also realizes that awareness of the problem is increasing. Businesses such as Bargersville Wellness and Energy Spot that want to give back to the community have held fund drives. Percentages of profits were donated to the Angel Fund of their choice.
So far thousands of dollars have been raised for each school corporation, and the total amount of money donated slowly grows every day. Going forward, Fortenberry envisions the initiative following a two-pronged approach to the problem. If parents can pay off half the amount their child owes, EKE will match the funds in order to erase the entire debt. The second aspect is providing parents with aid in applying for free and reduced lunch.
“We realize we need to catch this on the front end,” Fortenberry says. “There is a great quote by Desmond Tutu that says, ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.’ Our goal for 2023-24 is to get ahead of the problem by making sure parents know there is a free and reduced lunch program available, and providing them with help they might need in filling out the paperwork.”
In the future the initiative leaders hope it can include other nearby communities. Fortenberry points out that no amount is too small. Even a small donation helps.
“People are suffering everywhere and people want to help,” she says. “We make it easy for people to donate. Kids have no control over the amount of money their parents make. We just want to provide a little bit of relief to these families.”
Visit Every Kid Eats of Johnson County on Facebook for more information.