ENID, Okla. — A local congregation has put a $500 dent in Enid Public Schools' nearly $60,000 student nutrition debt. They're hopeful the gesture encourages others to follow suit.
"We're just getting started," the Rev. John Toles said. "Five hundred dollars is a small drop, but at least it's a drop."
St. Matthew's Episcopal Church dipped into the community tithe to forgive $500 in missed lunch and breakfast payments at Emerson, motivated by the growing debt districtwide.
At an August school board meeting, EPS administrators announced the district is saddled with $60,000 in food debt. Doubling $30,000 from the previous year, which was double the $15,000 from the year before that.
"Emerson is about a block away from our church and we thought, 'Well, we can't help them all, but we can help the ones in our neighborhood,'" Toles said.
The school has a free or reduced-price lunch rate around 85 percent, according to Oklahoma State Department of Education data, one of the highest in the district.
Emerson Principal Candice Wojciechowsky said she's very appreciative of the donation.
"We always have students who need a little extra help, and so we're just thankful that they've decided to do that for our students," she said. "I feel fortunate here that we have people in the community who would reach out to us to help students. Eating is basic, and we feed our students whether they owe us or not."
If students aren't able to pay, they still are fed the same as their peers. Long-standing, unpaid food debts generally are absorbed by EPS, which has cost the district tens of thousands of dollars in recent years.
This financial challenge has administrators and school board members looking for solutions, including the possibility of alternative meals.
The idea of instituting meal substitutions was not discussed at length during the board meeting, but came up as an option if a better answer isn't found.
If other congregations make the lunch debt a priority, Toles is confident the district and its students will have a much smaller burden to shoulder. Food shouldn't be a concern or question in school, he said.
"I'm throwing down a challenge to the other churches in Enid to help us overcome this problem that we have," he said. "There's some very healthy congregations in this town that could come forward and help. If we can afford to do it, if we have the funds available to do it, I absolutely think we should."
Free and reduced-price lunch applications can be found online at enidpublicschools.org/mealapplication, or can be picked up in person at any school site.
Filled out forms can then be turned in to any school office, or to the entral kitchen at 519 S. Washington. They also can be emailed to Kelly Craig, EPS' director of child nutrition, at email@example.com.
"When there is a negative balance, we communicate with the parent and guardian about the situation. There is not a negative consequence for the student," EPS communications director Amber Fitzgerald said. "If a family does not qualify for free meals, we ask that they please be proactive by paying for meals in advance. If a balance does exist, we need the charges to be paid as soon as possible. Payment plans are available."
Payment for meals can be sent by check to the school, or to the central kitchen, or online at enidpublicschools.org/payformeals.
Willetts writes for the Enid News & Eagle, a CNHI News Service publication.