$88K in school lunch debt wiped out in Decatur after viral cheese sandwich report

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. (Dean Hesse/ Decaturish)

After gaining attention from a recent GoFundMe campaign, City Schools of Decatur announced on Thursday that $88,000 in lunch debt has been wiped from students’ accounts through a corporate foundation grant.

The issue of student lunch debt in the city came to the attention of local parent Jasmine Crowe-Houston after seeing a tweet from the Dekalb-based online publication Decaturish, which originally reported on the issue.

The report noted that due to updated meal charge procedures starting Feb 1., students who missed a maximum of three payments would be served an alternative meal option — a cheese sandwich and milk — rather than the more nutritional food options offered to their peers.

In response, Crowe-Houston launched a GoFundMe campaign to help erase the collected debt. The campaign sparked social media attention and raised over $36,000 in 24 hours and exceeded its goal of $86,000 in 48 hours, according to Crowe-Houston.

“My heart is overwhelmed with emotion, astonishment and gratitude as I wake up to the incredible news that we’ve achieved our goal … immense thanks to each person who contributed and spread the word!” she said in a message on her GoFundMe Thursday morning.

“Together, we’ve spared countless kids from enduring the embarrassment and trauma of being meal-shamed at school — something that could haunt them for a lifetime,” she added.

Later Thursday, City Schools of Decatur announced that the funds raised by Crowe-Houston and her donors, though appreciated, would not be accepted.

“City Schools of Decatur is grateful for the overwhelming support we have received from the greater Atlanta community,” the district said in a press release. “However, we are delighted to confirm the $88,000 lunch debt has been eliminated thanks to the generosity of a corporate foundation grant.”

The district went on to say that all past balances have been forgiven and the district finalized agreements with unnamed organizations to provide more assistance to families undergoing financial hardships.

“As a public school district, we often have to make difficult decisions,” the district said. “However, we remain committed to providing healthy meal options for all students while working diligently to proactively prevent future debt reoccurrences.”

In a fall survey the School Nutrition Association, over 800 school districts reported a total of $18 million in unpaid meal debt.

In the midst of COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provided funding to public schools for free meals for all students, regardless of family income. However, when the program ended in 2022, City Schools of Decatur and other districts across the U.S. went back to their regular meal plan procedures.

While Crowe-Houston noted her joy in the foundation grant wiping away the balances of students, she said City Schools of Decatur declined her offer to use the donations to set up a reserve nutrition fund for future meal balances.

The Decatur parent — also the founder and CEO of Goodr, a company dedicated to reducing food insecurity and waste — said she is grateful to become aware of a problem occurring not only in her local school district but all across the state.

“While the initial issue that prompted this campaign has been successfully resolved, the insights gained from this experience will continue to inspire both me and the Goodr team to actively work on preventing such situations in the future,” she said in an emailed statement to WABE.

“I can’t thank everyone enough for elevating this issue.”