Gift pays off $20,000 of Northampton schools’ lunch debt

  • In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 file photo, a third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for a meal at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. All students are offered the same lunch at Gonzales and other Santa Fe public schools to avoid any chance of embarrassing students whose parents may have fallen behind on meal payments. In April 2017, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the shaming of children for any unpaid meals. AP/Morgan Lee

Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2019 11:47:39 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Around the country, students who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch and can’t pay for their food are incurring charges. Seventy-five percent of school districts had unpaid meal accounts at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the national School Nutrition Association found in a survey.

Currently, Northampton Public Schools has $22,469 in lunch debt — but not for long.

Last Thursday, the School Committee formally accepted a $20,000 donation designated for cafeteria debt from Mary and Ronald Grimm, who used to live in Leeds but now make their home in Canaan, New Hampshire.

“​​​​​​It’s incredibly generous,” said Mistelle Hannah, the district’s director of food services. “Just the fact that somebody would think about the food service department and this as an actual issue, not just here in Northampton, it’s wonderful.”

Superintendent John Provost echoed Hannah.

“It’s donations such as this,” Provost said, “that make me humbled as superintendent to be able to work in this community.”

Ronald Grimm, speaking from the couple’s weekend home in Leeds, called making the donation “very satisfying.”

“Helping out the kids who owed the lunch money, it was the best thing we could have done,” he said.

Grimm said empathy had prompted their gift.

“Been there, done that,” he said. “It was always an issue,” he said, adding that he and his wife had both had struggled financially early on in life, especially during his college years.

Grimm, who moved with his family to Northampton in 1969, became a doctor and practiced surgery at Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Northampton Surgical Associates.

“All of our kids went through the Northampton schools,” he said. In 1994, he and his wife moved to Vermont, and later, New Hampshire. Now retired, the couple spend most of their time in Canaan, New Hampshire.

Under current federal laws, Provost said, school lunch programs need to be balanced by the end of the year.

“At the end of the year, any debt we have not been able to recover from parents needs to be paid for by the School Committee,” he said. “Those debts reduce the amount of funding available for other education services. That’s why having this generous donation that allows us to address our current bad debt is so important to us.”

A growing issue

As the school year comes to a close, Easthampton school officials are surprised at how many school lunch charges remain outstanding — $48,000 worth of them.

“I think ours was in the 30s last year,” Superintendent Allison LeClair said of the debt. “And that we thought was large. This is the biggest we’ve ever had. It’s shocking to us.”

She said the district has gotten some donations, “20 dollars here or there.”

“Someone that pays their bill on time and is regular might add $20 and say, ‘Put this toward a family that needs help,’” she said.

In the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School districts, currently enrolled students collectively owe $60,000, according to Sean Mangano, the district’s director of finance. That figure has grown from hovering near $50,000 for the past year or two, Mangano said. “It did uptick this past year,” he said. He plans to address the issue with the School Committee in the fall.

Nationally, Hannah said, it’s “becoming a greater issue and people are hearing more and more about it.”

Many area schools said they assist families in signing up for free and reduced lunches if they qualify.

Policies around how students are treated because of their cafeteria debt have also been a national issue. Some districts have had humiliating practices that shame students, such as giving them cold sandwiches or makingg them clean tables.

Northampton schools do not use shaming practices, Provost said. “We will not, and we do not think it’s morally justified,” he said.

Northampton and Easthampton school officials said they give students the same lunch as others, regardless of their account balance.

“We’re never turning any (students) away — that’s a good thing, but it causes a lot of financial stress for our school department,” LeClair said. “That’s a lot of debt” the district doesn’t budget for.

Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools changed its policy in 2017 from giving a “meal alternative,” such as a cheese sandwich with fruits and vegetables, to students with overdue accounts to giving them the regular lunch option.

Still, some schools have consequences for students. A section of South Hadley Public School’s policy, posted in its school handbook online, reads, “Failure to maintain up-to-date accounts may result in a delay of a student’s extracurricular school services, especially those that are fee-based,” it reads. “Graduating seniors may lose the ability to participate in certain graduation-related activities.”

Easthampton’s policy has a similar provision. “Graduating seniors are not allowed to take part in activities until their account is cleared,” LeClair said. “Families are offered, always, to set up a payment plan.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at
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