Working to ensure Lafayette students don’t go hungry

A group started about two years ago to ensure students without lunch money don’t go hungry is about $3,000 away from reaching the $10,000 goal set by the school district.

Lafayette mom Cerrisa Couvillion created the nonprofit Louisiana Lunch Money in 2011 after learning students without lunch money were being given graham crackers and milk.

At the time, the district began to enforce more strictly its no-charge policy for school lunches in a push to recoup debt from years of unpaid lunches and to encourage parents to keep their children’s accounts current.

The group launched in November 2011, and between then and May 2012 raised $8,500, which was used that school year. In the past school year — between September 2012 and May 2013 — the group raised $19,000, used that school year.

As it geared up for this school year, the group received notice from the parish school system that its donations wouldn’t be used to fund students’ lunches until at least $10,000 is in the donation account.

The caveat was necessary for a few reasons, including ensuring that money doesn’t run out and that students consistently receive a lunchtime meal, said Billy Guidry, chief financial officer for the school district.

“Toward the end of last school year, the donated funds ran out, so we had … a situation where one day a child goes and their meal is covered by the sponsored meal program and the next day, it’s not,” Guidry said.

Couvillion said such instances were rare, and the group was able to replenish the account.

Since the start of the school year in August, elementary school students without lunch money have been receiving a full lunch, not a snack.

The snack-in-lieu-of-a-meal was suspended at the beginning of the school year to allow more time for parents to apply for free and reduced-price meal benefits, said Renee Sherville, child nutrition services director.

The district opted to continue the meal-time snack suspension at the elementary level indefinitely, she said.

At the beginning of the school year, Sherville said, as many as 500 students a day didn’t have lunch money, but the numbers have dropped, ranging from below 100 to 150 on any given day.

In Lafayette Parish, middle-school students without lunch money still receive a snack in lieu of a meal, though the number is low, often a dozen a day, Sherville said.

The district offers an online payment system for parents to deposit money and check on the status of their children’s account.

Since the start of school in August, the tally of unpaid meals is about $3,000 in new debt, but that includes meals for students who later qualified for free meals, Sherville said.

The amount is nowhere near the $441,000 in unpaid meals in 2007 that led to the district policy prohibiting students from charging for meals if there was no money in their account. Now, what’s left of that cumulative old debt is $33,000, Sherville said.

Donations for student meals won’t be directed to prior lunch expenses but to pay for student meals in the upcoming semester, Guidry said.

The school system didn’t request a lump sum donation, Guidry said, but informed Couvillion it will accumulate the money into an account until it reaches $10,000.

Guidry estimates that’s how much it will cost to fund an entire semester — January through May — of elementary school lunches.

Meanwhile, Couvillion said, she and her group’s board members are researching grant options to sustain their efforts and to expand into Lafayette Parish middle schools and other parishes.

A few fundraisers, including a Christmas Carnival set for Dec. 7, are planned.

“I just want to feed the kids,” Couvillion said. “The bottom line is that all efforts are in vain if those kids are hungry.”