The holidays came early for some Virginia families struggling to pay. Three Virginia pastors used more than $17,000 from their church's budget to pay off meal debt at two local school systems.
"It seemed like a good idea, (but) we didn't know if there was a need because no one ever seems to talk about this," said the Reverend Jerry Williams, a pastor at Mount Ararat Baptist Church. "So we called the school systems. And gosh, wow, was there a need."
Williams, the Reverend Brian Bennett and the Reverend Andrew Segre gave $10,500 to Stafford County Public Schools and close to $7,000 to Spotsylvania County Public Schools, which wiped out balances across the district, news outlets reported.
Keana Butler, principal of Park Ridge Elementary School in Stafford, said she was skeptical when the pastors emailed her about students' meal debt. She said usually parent-teacher groups and members of her own staff pay out of pocket to help reduce the debt.
"I was overwhelmed by the generosity," Butler said.
About 75% of schools districts nationally reported unpaid meal debt, with the median amount per school being about $2,500, according to The Washington Post, which cited the national School Nutrition Association. The median amount of unpaid debt increased 70% from the 2012-2013 school year.
The Washington Post reported students across Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia owe nearly a $500,000 in meal debt. The Post also reported that although the National School Lunch Program allows some students to get free or reduced-price meals, many families who barely fail to qualify for federal aid still struggle to pay for school breakfast and lunch five days a week.
Williams said neither he nor the other pastors were aware of the meal debt statistics. They intend to pay off the debt again. He said he hopes their actions bring more awareness to the growing debt.
"This is not a churchy thing," Williams said. "This - helping children and families - this is a thing that anyone can do."