For families who can't afford the full price of a school lunch in Durham Public Schools, cafeterias participate in the Free or Reduced Lunch Program.
But at the end of the school year, an outstanding balance can still leave parents in a financial bind. By November, 636 of the 1,500 students in Durham who participate in the reduced lunch program owed $4,883. Parents owe forty cents per meal, which accumulates into sums they may not be able to afford.
Within twelve hours, a community crowdfunding campaign led by Durham resident Rebekah Miel raised enough money to cover that debt. So she decided to extend it and try to raise $103,835, the November total amount owed by all students, whether in the program or not.
The Grammy-nominated Durham-based band Sylvan Esso donated $10,000 to the cause, bringing the total balance down to $50,000 as of Monday.
A family's income determines whether kids qualify for a free or reduced lunch. But James Keaten, director of Child Nutrition Services in Durham County, says this factor is precarious, and many families may not qualify but still have the need.
"I want students to be able to focus on school without the lunch stigma," says Keaten, who grew up in Maine and participated in a reduced lunch program throughout his adolescence. "Kids shouldn't have to worry about paying for food."
Out of this campaign, Miel is organizing a coalition of parents and teachers, to begin convening early next year to discuss the issue.
"I'd like this to be the sort of conversation about what it would mean to have free lunch in Durham," says Miel, "recognizing that it's a complicated issue that needs a lot of moving parts to happen."
"It would be possible as a community to say that everyone in Durham gets a free lunch," says Natalie Spring, head of the E.K. Powe Elementary School PTA.
"It's really cool that the Durham public is supporting the GoFundMe and paying down lunch debt. I wish we didn't have to do this."
Wake County Schools, on the other hand, has enlisted a policy where no student can go into arrears, according to CNS director Paula Delucca. That means all students get a free meal regardless of if they have money to pay that day.
"If those meal charges do not get paid for later by the students, they become the debt of the child nutrition program," she says. "By virtue of that, there is no accumulated lunch debt for the families."
"We don't classify our students by eligibility; we treat all of our students equitably," she adds.
The alternative complimentary meal, though, while meeting nutritional standards, is not a hot meal, but a variety of fruit options. Keaten says Durham's current policy allows for up to five free hot meals, no questions asked. This helps reduce the stigma around school lunches, giving students the best possible access to the same meal.
Instances of shaming at schools nationwide have led to students skipping out on eating anything, so their need isn't exposed, according to teachers who have spoken to Miel since the campaign began.
On Thursday, the DPS school board will host a work session, where they'll discuss a new meal charge policy, Keaten says.Correction: The original article stated that Miel's original fundraising goal was met within a week. It was actually raised within twelve hours of the campaign's launch.