No child will be denied school lunch again if a crusading Gwinnett mom has her way

“Sometimes lunch will be the only meal of the day for these kids.”

Gwinnett County school lunch debt

Illustration by Dianna Settles

Last November, Alessandra Ferrara-Miller, a Suwanee resident and mother of two who works in legal marketing, walked into four North Gwinnett elementary schools and handed over more than $500—enough to pay off all the existing overdue lunch accounts at Suwanee Elementary, Roberts Elementary, Riverside Elementary, and Level Creek Elementary. It marked the first major donation from Ferrara-Miller’s one-woman nonprofit, All For Lunch, which she founded in 2017 with the intent to abolish all of the outstanding school lunch debt in metro Atlanta.

In 2016, Ferrara-Miller was busy raising her daughter and her newborn son, volunteering as her daughter’s kindergarten room mother, and leading a troop of 20 Girl Scouts. One day, she read a news story about an Alabama school sending an eight-year-old boy home with a stamp on his arm notifying his parents of his delinquent school lunch account. All she could think about was how stigmatizing and confusing it must have been for the child. “It just crushed my heart to picture my girls in my troop or the kids in this class ever having to experience that,” she says. “These little five- and six-year-old kids wouldn’t understand what was going on. Why couldn’t they get their food like everyone else? Why was their meal being taken away?”

“Sometimes lunch will be the only meal of the day for these kids.”

As similar stories hit the national news cycle, the term “lunch-shaming” emerged to describe some of the more drastic measures schools take to handle delinquent lunch accounts, from swapping a student’s warm lasagna for a bare-bones sandwich to throwing indebted students’ meals in the trash. In 2017, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw such practices, with California, New York, and a dozen other states following suit with similar legislation. That same year, the USDA also issued new guidelines requiring all schools to develop their own written policies for dealing with overdue accounts, encouraging more discreet tactics for alerting parents, such as written notices, phone calls, and text message reminders.

In metro Atlanta, those policies vary: Gwinnett County allows elementary school students to carry a debt up to $11.25 before serving them an alternate meal, which Ferrara-Miller says is usually just a hot entree, with no fruit or milk. In Cobb County, elementary school students who have exceeded $7.05 in charges are also provided with an alternate meal, like a peanut butter sandwich. Fulton County allows elementary students to charge three meals once their account is overdue, after which they may receive a cheese sandwich or other designated alternative. But some schools cobble together their own ways of managing the issue; Ferrara-Miller has spoken with at least one Cobb school whose teachers, staff, and parents chip in to an evergreen donation fund to help pay for students’ meals.

Ferrara-Miller had no prior experience in setting up or managing a nonprofit—“Google became my best friend,” she says. In between a full-time job and raising two small children, Ferrara-Miller spent her spare time meeting with area educators and staff to understand the processes their schools had in place and learn how lunch debt has affected their students. She recalls one cafeteria manager tearing up while describing having to provide alternate meals to second- and third-graders who came from low-income or homeless families. In some instances, students could be eligible for the USDA’s free and reduced-price lunch program, but narrow income requirements, annual application deadlines, and language barriers can make it difficult for parents to apply each year.

Launching All For Lunch also required educating and spreading awareness about the issue itself, an unexpected challenge, Ferrara-Miller says. Many people she spoke with were unfamiliar with the concept of school lunch debt, despite it being widespread: According to a national survey of 1,550 school districts conducted last year by School Nutrition Association, 75 percent of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017 school year, and 40 percent reported a year-over-year increase in students who lacked adequate funds. “Now,” she says, “I’m having people from different communities saying, ‘I didn’t know this was a thing. What can we do to get the word out?’”

The following July, one day before her birthday, Ferrara-Miller received a letter from the IRS officially approving All For Lunch’s status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Since then, All For Lunch has raised nearly $3,000 from donors, enough to cover approximately 1,150 school lunches, according to Ferrara-Miller. Most of those contributions have come from metro residents. She’s received donations as small as $5 and as significant as a few hundred, though on average, most people donate about $30. With most elementary school lunches costing from $2.25 to $2.50 a meal, she adds, “even the littlest amount really does go a long way.”

One of All For Lunch’s biggest challenges is determining how much debt exists across the metro area. Ferrara-Miller is working with school officials to tally the number and, with the help of PTA groups and local businesses, work toward eradicating it district by district. Across Gwinnett County Public Schools, according to Ferrara-Miller, that figure is almost $88,000. (Prices for student lunches in Gwinnett range from $2.25 for elementary school to $2.50 for high school, or a flat 40 cents for students who qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program.)

Long-term, Ferrara-Miller hopes All For Lunch can act as an emergency fund for all school lunch debt in the metro area, particularly with the help of recurring monthly donors. Absent a free-lunch program, which a number of cities across the country have implemented, her ideal vision is one in which no kid has to dump their lunch or swap their chicken nuggets for bread and peanut butter, and one where school lunches can help to curtail food insecurity in the state—a problem that more than one in every five Georgia kids lives with, according to a 2018 report from the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “Sometimes lunch will be the only meal of the day for these kids,” Ferrara-Miller says. “And so my hope is that they can always have that meal.”

By the numbers

percentage of food pantry customers who choose between paying for food and paying for education expenses

percentage of those people who make that choice every month

number of school systems in Georgia that provide free lunch for all under a federal program

12 million
number of kids in the United States facing food insecurity

30 cents
cost of reduced-price breakfast at APS

approximate number of children in metro Atlanta and north Georgia who rely on food pantries and meal service programs

75 cents
cost of full-priced breakfast at Atlanta Public Schools

cost of full-priced lunch at Atlanta Public Schools

40 cents
cost of reduced-price lunch at APS

Total amount of 4,804 delinquent school lunch accounts in Cobb County

This article appears in our March 2019 issue.