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To help a child; Project hopes to support child’s lunch cost

Austin public schools are hoping to identify donors who will help a select group of students eat a healthy lunch.

Mary Weikum, head of Food and Nutrition Services for Austin Public Schools, said there is a segment of the parent population who “doesn’t qualify for any help and just misses” the eligibility for free and reduced lunches, she said.

As a result, she has created the Lunch Tray Project, a way to match donors to families, by funding some or all of their school lunch cost.

“These are hard working families,” she said. To put the program in perspective, a single parent with one child must gross less than $2,505 per month to qualify for free and reduced lunches.

“By the time you pay for rent, food,” and transportation, there is little left for anything else, she said.

The segment of families is not large, she said – about 40 children. It takes about $450 per child to feed them for the entire school year.

This year, in advance of the new program, about three families were helped this way, by donors who asked to help with the food program.

She hopes going forward, every child will have a guardian lunch angel.

“When we did this with a few children this year, I contacted their parents, and you cannot believe how thankful they were, how much of a concern was lifted,” Weikum said. “It really meant a lot to them – and it was the best moment of my year, too.”

A little known fact, she said, is how many Austin residents regularly contact the school to offer to pay for negative balances in the food program.

“We might have someone call one day and ask what our negative balance is,” she said. “And that’s all it takes – they write a check.”

She is hoping that donors – or perhaps organizations – will offer to help pay for a child’s annual lunch cost this year.

“At $450 a year, we believe that people will step up; Austin is a very giving community.”

Today, these students get by – they might bring a sack lunch, or come with inexpensive items that aren’t particularly healthy. The hardship cuts across all segments of the Austin lower-income populations, she said. All of these parents have applied for and have been denied the free and reduced lunch discounts.

Fortunately, she said, breakfast is free of charge for all students, no matter what their parents earn.

“It’s something the district wants to do, feels it can do,” she said, and children who regularly eat breakfast have better learning experiences and fewer behavioral issues that otherwise come with being hungry.

“These are the kids who are lost in the shuffle, they’re the children whose families are working hard but just don’t make enough” to pay for a  hot lunch.

Weikum said staff could initiate a full program immediately, if donations come in.

Those interested in helping support the program can call Weikum at 507-460-1919, or by email at mary.weikum@austin.k12.mn.us.