[Episcopal News Service] When members of St. Timothy Episcopal Church in Chehalis, Washington, decided last year to pay off the lunch debt for every student in Lewis County, they had no idea how big a problem they were tackling. They quickly learned that students in 11 school districts owed over $22,000 in unpaid fees for school meals.
“None of us expected those debts to be so high,” senior warden Jessica Strickland told Episcopal News Service. And the money the church planned to use would cover only a part of that cost.
St. Timothy, a congregation of the Diocese of Olympia, is the only Episcopal church in Lewis County, on Interstate 5 about halfway between Seattle and Portland, Oregon. In spring 2023, the vestry decided to help more kids by seeing if they could pay off the lunch debts of students in the Chehalis School District, but when they saw the extent of the debt, members soon decided to expand the effort to all county schools.
Debt numbers from eight of the 11 school districts, showed some big discrepancies. Two districts showed no lunch debts. Another one had $82. But in the Chehalis district, students owed $12,239 in unpaid lunch fees – all of that from the high school. The district provides free lunches for elementary and middle school students, Strickland said. Full-priced meals for high school students cost $1.90 for breakfast and $3.30 for lunch. Seniors cannot walk across the stage and receive their diploma if they owe meal fees.
“We wanted to be sure seniors could graduate,” the Rev. Kay Flores, the church’s rector, told ENS, noting that unpaid debts can be a hindrance. “We want them to walk across that stage.”
About five years ago, St. Timothy had received a large check from the estate of Louise Guay, a woman who had lived near the church but was never involved in services or its ministry, so far as anyone knew, Flores said. After several months, when smaller monthly checks started arriving, church leaders learned they were the beneficiary of an ongoing mineral-rights lease Guay had willed to them. The vestry decided they would earmark all this money to help youth and young adults – even though the church has few of either.
While the amount varies from month to month, the church receives an average of between $700 and $900, Flores said, and at every vestry meeting, there is an agenda item to discuss how the church should use the Guay money. Unspent money accumulates in a special account.
Over the years the church has used some of it to support LGBTQ+ students and clubs in area high schools, and to provide nursing scholarships for young people in the Diocese of Olympia. They’ve also donated to church-connected organizations, including Episcopal Relief & Development and the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.
St. Timothy is located next door to the high school football field and is halfway between the elementary and middle schools, so Flores said they try to be good neighbors to the students and have encouraged them to stop in during their lunch period. “Kids walk through our place and play in our parking lot,” she said. At Halloween the church hosted a “Book or Treat” event that provided snacks and books to 150 students. It also gives $50 a month to the food pantry at the high school, which has more than 1,000 students.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, free school lunches became U.S. policy, when Congress gave schools waivers that allowed them to provide the meals to every student. That policy ended nationally with the start of the 2022-2023 school year, even though some states have extended it on their own. That fall, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, Chris Reykdal, urged the state Legislature to make school lunches free for all students. Instead, lawmakers extended free school lunches to some additional students in kindergarten through fourth grade.
Families can apply for their children to receive free or reduced-priced school meals based on income. For free lunches, income for a family of four can’t exceed $39,000 a year. For reduced-price meals, the cap is $55,500 a year, and students would then pay 40 cents for lunches.
By July 2023, the total student lunch debt across the state of Washington was more than $51 million.
When St. Timothy’s Guay fund had reached about $11,000 last spring, the vestry decided to put more than $10,000 of it toward the $22,000 in Lewis County lunch debts. In November, an article in the local newspaper highlighted the lunch debt problem and the church’s efforts to alleviate it.
When that article appeared, Strickland said the community was shocked. “Nobody in the community, to my knowledge, outside of the districts themselves knew about the school lunch debt,” she said. And even with the church’s donation, the problem is continuing. “The district still is left with over $12,000 in debt from last year, and we’re not even talking about the student lunch debt that’s accumulating now.”
In November, the vestry earmarked an additional $500 a month toward lunch debts through the end of this school year. They also invited community members to make donations through a special giving portal the church established.
Strickland said she was saddened to learn that employees of some school districts were helping to pay for student lunches from their own pockets. Because the state provides the school, she believes the Legislature should provide their meals.
“Let’s feed our kids,” she said. “It’s every adult’s responsibility to take care of our children, so we should be doing that. But in the meantime, our church is doing our part to help pay down that debt.”
–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.