Eau Claire school district Administration Building

Eau Claire school district Administration Building, 500 Main St.

When Eau Claire school is back in session on Sept. 3, 290 students who ended last year with a negative number in their lunch accounts will start over with a clean slate.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, there was a total of about $2,500 in lunch debt, but that has been wiped out by donors who wanted to allay public school families’ concerns about being overdrawn in the past.

Joshua Guckenberg, who started in spring as the district’s new food and nutrition director, said eliminating those debts allows students to focus more on their education.

“A kid shouldn’t be worrying about whether Mom and Dad paid, whether they’re going to eat,” he said.

Sixty-one donors gave to the donation fund during the past school year that wiped out the lunch debt, he said.

Student lunch debt gained attention in Eau Claire in 2017 when the school district was in the process of ending a policy that gave students a peanut butter or cheese sandwich and milk instead of a hot lunch when their accounts were overdrawn by five meals or more.

Hearing that students faced the stigma of eating those alternative cold lunches among their peers, mother Laci Eberle of Eau Claire donated $786.90 in February 2017 to wipe all the debt off of elementary lunch accounts.

And now the district allows all students to get hot lunches, even if their account balance has dipped below $0.

“We feed them the same meals the other students get,” Guckenberg said.

Sometimes lunch accounts briefly get into negative balances if students spend more in a month than their parents paid in, but Guckenberg said that goes away when families refill their accounts.

In cases where a student’s account goes deeper in the red, the district will contact the family to work out a payment plan. The district also will remind families about the free and reduced-price lunch program available to households that meet income guidelines.

For example, a single-parent raising a child with a household annual income of $31,284 or less would be eligible for discounted school lunch prices. A family of four with an income of $47,638 also would meet the income eligibility requirement.

Student lunch debt has also become an issue this summer in different communities across the nation.

The Associated Press reported earlier this week that a foundation tied to Northport, Mich., beer company Mitten Brewing paid $2,700 to wipe out student lunch debt in the Suttons Bay school district in northern Michigan.

Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania school district was embroiled in controversy in July after it sent a letter threatening dozens of families with past-due cafeteria bills with the possibility of taking the parents to court to challenge custody of their children. Several donors agreed to pay off the $22,000 in student lunch debt — an offer Wyoming Valley West school district initially declined, but later accepted — and school officials later agreed to drop their foster care threat amid widespread criticism, according to a National Public Radio article.

Contact: 715-833-9204, andrew.dowd@ecpc.com, @ADowd_LT on Twitter