They call them “lunch angels.”
Local business owners Erik Neill of Neill’s Taekwondo & Fitness and Walt Winfrey and Kyle Newman of Craige Motor Company are paying the balances of children who owe money to the school for their daily lunches.
The idea came about during a weekly lunch between Neill and Newman when Newman mentioned an article he read about free-and-reduced lunch programs in Utah.
“They were less nutritious, they were not hot lunches, they were generally lacking,” Neill said of the Utah lunches.
Neill, Winfrey and Newman wanted to be sure that nothing of the sort was happening in this area.
“We wanted to lend a helping hand, we thought this was the best idea and we knew that nobody else was doing it, so we went right to Pearsontown Elementary,” Neill said.
The Lunch Angels initially approached Pearsontown Elementary of the Durham school district last month. There, they paid lunch debts amounting to $840, Winfrey said. They later visited Carrboro Elementary, where Neill and Newman attended as children.
Subsequently, Newman, Neill and Winfrey paid lunch debts at nine additional Chapel Hill, Durham and Hillsborough schools.
Liz Cartano, Director of Child Nutrition at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said there is no difference in lunches between children with and without overdue balances.
“We don’t deny any child a meal at the elementary-middle school level, so regardless of whether they owed money or didn’t owe money they are given the same exact lunch as everybody else,” Cartano said.
Some families have overdue balances simply because they didn’t get their application in on time, didn’t realize they had to fill out an application or they changed lunch programs, resulting in a low capability to pay off the balance, Cartano said.
Winfrey says the Lunch Angels are looking for more recruits.
“As it’s gotten a little more attention and a little more help from others, we’re looking for people to help us keep on doing this because obviously we’re not a big company — we’re small — and we’re just trying to see what we can do,” Winfrey said.
So far, Neill, Winfrey and Newman have received donations from Time-Out of Chapel Hill, former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Jim Leutze and several other small businesses and concerned residents.
Newman hopes the Greek community, as well as other campus organizations, will want to get involved by facilitating this kind of change in the community versus giving donations.
“This is kind of an amorphous grassroots movement,” Newman said.
The staff of the schools approached by the Lunch Angels are particularly appreciative, Winfrey said.
“A couple of them have even been brought to tears because they know the specific kid that can’t quite get whatever he wants,” Winfrey said. “It’s just been a wonderful thing.”
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