Paying it forward, anonymously

Four Caledonia elementary schools now have zero student lunch debt moving into the new year

Brody Bester serves himself a fruit smoothie

A call from an anonymous donor started a chain of giving in the Caledonia school community, paying off all student lunch debt at Emmons Lake Elementary. Shortly after, Caledonia Elementary’s lunch debt was paid, then Kettle Lake Elementary, and then Dutton Elementary.

“It makes you feel wonderful living in a community that cares so much about the children and the families and their lunch debt,” said Mimi Mahaney, Caledonia food service director. “I feel like it’s a pay it forward here.”

Though the identity of these anonymous donors is unknown, the sense of community the school feels is not, Mahaney said.

Part of the Caledonia healthy food initiative includes portion control

“The holidays can bring out the best in people and it sure did in Caledonia,” she said.

The Caledonia school lunch program allows students to get a meal at lunchtime, even if they don’t have money on them, Mahaney said. Any extra charges such as chips or bottled beverages, create student lunch debt, as well as meals that are charged to a student’s account when they don’t have money for lunch. The donations to the school lunch programs help to take the pressure off of families during the Christmas season.

As of last school year, 55 percent of students in Caledonia were eating school-provided lunches, and 9 percent of students were included in the free and reduced lunch program. Across the nation, more than 100,000 schools and institutions serve school lunches to nearly 30 million students each day, according to the School Nutrition Association.

“We don’t want anyone to go hungry,” Mahaney said. “It is a gift to work for Caledonia and with such wonderful people, you truly feel blessed and thankful for your surroundings.”

Spreading the Word

Caledonia Vision Center was trying to think of an idea to give back to the community at the end of the year when the staff came up with the idea to pay off school lunch debt, optometrist Jennifer Sowers said.

“Later, we heard that other anonymous donors paid off lunch debt too,” she said. “We love being a part of a community that wants to help and support our local families and schools as much as we do.”

Sowers, who has children who attend Caledonia schools, said that supporting all aspects of the community is important.

Moving forward, the Vision Center will be donating $5 for each pair of glasses they sell throughout the month of December to any Caledonia school in need of help with their lunch debt.

“As a local business, we always strive to support other local businesses and of course our schools,” Sowers said.

Caledonia food service serves lunch to 55 percent of the district’s students
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Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit. Read Hannah's full bio or email Hannah.

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