A generous gift: Overby Orthodontics wipes out APS lunch debt with $12,000 donation

Published 12:03 pm Thursday, July 4, 2019

An Austin business has wiped out Austin Public School Districts school lunch debt with a generous gift.

Overby Orthodontics has done community outreach projects before, and the projects were mostly small sponsorships. Usually, the team would choose one big project around Christmas time, according to Taylor Bliese, business manager. However, seeing more stories of students struggling to pay lunch debt circulating in the news prompted an idea for Overby Orthodontics.

“This seemed like a big need we can fill,” Bliese said. “We contacted the school district to see what the numbers looked like, and it was pretty surprising for the lunch debt just in the Austin Public Schools District. Dr. Overby considered it, and said ‘why not pay the whole thing?’ It was all the schools, not just a couple. There were gasps and excitement and some tears and goosebumps. It’s pretty exciting to help so many people.”

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After being notified last month about the gift, Mary Weikum, Food and Nutrition Director at APS, expressed her gratitude at the gesture made by Overby Orthodontics.

“I’m surprised and amazed,” Weikum said. “It’s a great gift to the kids in our community. It’s a thoughtful and generous donation to the students and families in our district.”

About 60 percent of the student population in APS qualifies for free or reduced lunches, according to Weikum. If a student’s lunch balance is negative, then the accumulative debt continues to follow the student during their entire time at APS until it’s been paid. APS carries between $11,000 to $12,000 in lunch debt each year. Since lunch debt is not considered a food services expense, the money to cover the debt would have to come out of the general education fund.

“This $12,000 will wipe that out,” Weikum said. “Everyone will start with a clean state. It’s great for the district. This will affect our school district in a positive way for our students and families.”

Over at Overby Orthodontics, the staff was surprised that the lunch debt would need to be covered by dollars from the general education fund.

Left: Dr. Eric Overby of Overby Orthodontics gifts the Austin Public Schools District $12,000 to wipe out its student lunch debt. Mary Weikum, Food and Nutrition Director, accepts the check. Photo provided.

“We learned a lot in the process,” Bliese said. “We learned about the rules in how money is appropriated. The district cannot just forgive the lunch debt. It would have to come out of the general fund, which means less money for classrooms. We learned that it’s important to keep contributing as community members.”

Most of the student lunch debt is in small amounts like $5, but occasionally there are higher amounts like $50. Although there are many students and families who qualify for either free or reduced lunch, many just barely miss qualifying and are in financial stress.

“Sometimes, it’s difficult for families who may not qualify for free lunch and still struggle,” Weikum said. “If there’s a gap when families do not qualify, that’s part of the issue. The donation would wipe out their debt, and they won’t have to worry about that anymore.”

This special gift marked the first time that anyone paid off an entire district’s school lunch debt for APS, Weikum said. Pairing this with the Lunch Tray Project—a program which helps families whose income is just above maximum guidelines to qualify for free or reduced priced lunches by funding some or all of their school lunch costs—the next school year’s students would be staying ahead and negative balances would not increase as rapidly.

“Most people don’t want any debt hanging over their head and it’s worrisome,” Weikum said. “This will take care of that and it’s one less thing to worry about. It’s easier to stay ahead, rather than stay behind and try to get ahead in lunch debt and trying to catch up all the time.”

From data gathered by the United Way of Mower County, a family of four living in the community who earns a median monthly income of $3,522 has only about $65 left each month after paying for basic needs like healthcare, rent, taxes, childcare and more. A single parent with one child does not qualify for free or reduced lunch prices if they gross more than $2,528 a month.

Being able to help students and families all over the APS district was more than just wiping out lunch debt; rather, it is an act of support for the community of which Overby Orthodontics is a part, Bliese said.

“It’s something important for businesses to do,” she said. “We all have families and kids who work and live in the same community. Our community supports our local business, and it’s important to give back to our community.”