Some Kempsville students will be getting a fresh start next month on school lunch debt, thanks to a group of local masons and church members.
St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church and Kempsville Masonic Lodge 196 on Princess Anne Road have paid just over $4,600 for lunch debts at three schools in their backyard, Providence Elementary School and Kempsville Meadows and Larkspur Middle.
The debt hasn’t gone away completely, but it was enough to cover about 1,600 lunches, said Scott Bottenfield, who helps run the church’s donation program, Feed Kempsville. The church began fundraising in September and Masons joined the effort in February.
“Hunger doesn’t go away,” organizer Bob Hughes recalled when he pitched the idea to his lodge.
“I actually discovered that Masonry and the church go together,” he said. “We are a brotherhood of men under the fatherhood of God. What we do, we don’t do for recognition. We do for the sake of helping.”
A Virginia Beach Schools spokeswoman said such donations happen once or twice a year. The division is asking people who want to help to donate to a food bank or the Beach bags initiative, which provides healthy meals and snacks to students in the city who might be hungry during weekends or breaks.
The division’s current total debt for breakfast and lunch is $138,731. More than 40% of Virginia Beach students receive a free or reduced lunch, said John Smith, who directs the Office of Food Services. Lunch is $2.85 at Virginia Beach schools; the reduced price for qualifying students is 40 cents.
Feed Kempsville was launched in 2014 in St. Andrews. They launched their lunch money debt relief program three years later.
“We sat down with cafeteria managers and principals from local schools, learned more about it, and learned that we could help a little with that,” Bottenfield said.
The $4,600 donation is their most recent effort. Since 2014, they’ve raised $5,366 for lunch debt relief, Bottenfield said. This is the equivalent of 113,758 meals. Their other efforts include beach bags and donations to the Church of the Ascension pantry.
School lunch debt has been a hot topic in Hampton Roads over the years. In Portsmouth, students racked up $68,000 in cafeteria fees in 2007-08, prompting the school board to start serving students with debts over $4.05. cheese sandwiches, fruit and milk before lunch. Lunch debts in the division fell to $1,603 over the next four years, but board members called it “demeaning” because it singled out children. It was then that then superintendent David Stuckwisch ended the practice.
In Virginia Beach, when students are in debt over $20.75, the cost of five breakfasts and lunches for a week, their lunch is billed to a master account, and the school principal talks to the relative. When this happens, they are given a turkey or ham sandwich with cheese, fruit, vegetables, and milk. It is served in line with all other meals.
“It ticks all the boxes,” Smith said. “They’re not finger-pointing in the line either. We’re leaving it up there as an option so anyone can pick one up.”
The division sends out balance reminders every week, and the debt has gone down by more than $100,000, Smith said.
Bottenfield said he was happy to help so many people. The group could not have done it without their church, Masons and non-members who stepped up to help.
“It’s always heartwarming and sometimes a little surprising to me how well this congregation responds to that need,” he said.