Farmington receives $21,422 grant from Arby’s Foundation for school lunch debt

Lynn Kutter/Enterprise-Leader
Eunkyong Kim, a food nutrition employee at Farmington Junior High, stacks bags of freshly made bread for the school district's food pantry on Friday, Feb. 12. Farmington has received a grant from Arby's Foundation to pay off more than $21,000 in school lunch debt.
Lynn Kutter/Enterprise-Leader Eunkyong Kim, a food nutrition employee at Farmington Junior High, stacks bags of freshly made bread for the school district's food pantry on Friday, Feb. 12. Farmington has received a grant from Arby's Foundation to pay off more than $21,000 in school lunch debt.

FARMINGTON -- Farmington schools recently received a $21,422 grant from the Arby's Foundation to pay off all school lunch debt to help students and families needing support.

"We're very fortunate to be selected," said Jon Laffoon, superintendent of schools. "This will alleviate the financial burden for some families that needed help with this."

In a news release about the grant, the Arby's Foundation said it had committed $500,000 to support every community where Arby's has a restaurant. Farmington was selected for the Northwest Arkansas area. The foundation planned to give out almost 200 grants for school lunch debt around the United States.

Laffoon said he had not heard of the foundation until he received an email about applications for the grant on a first-come, first-serve basis. Laffoon applied for the grant as soon as he received the email and requested $21,422.71, the school district's lunch debt at the time.

Wendy Burrus, the district's school nutrition director, said the money went quickly. She looked at the site shortly after Laffoon applied for a grant and the application process had closed. She said she's fielded calls from other schools asking how Farmington was able to get the grant.

"We're just super grateful for it," Burrus said last week. "It's God's favor on us, that's all I can think. We don't deserve it anymore than anyone else who is fighting this same battle."

In addition to the Arby's Foundation, Brand New Church in Farmington also helps with school lunch debt, Burrus said. The district receives about $1,000 each month from the church for that debt.

Burrus said school lunch debt is a problem in Arkansas. Many states are going to a universal feeding to alleviate the debt and help families, but Arkansas has not, even though Burrus, along with others, has advocated on the national level for all students to receive free meals.

"It would be nice if we just covered meals for students," Burrus said. "It's a basic need. We provide transportation. We provide books. We should provide meals."

About 30% of Farmington students receive meals through the federal free and reduced-meal plan. This year, all those students are able to eat free.

For other students, the cost is $3 for lunch, $2 for breakfast for high school and junior high students and $2.75 for lunch and $1.75 for breakfast for the middle school and elementary schools.

Regardless whether a student pays for meals, Burrus said every child is able to have breakfast and lunch each day.

"We are going to feed everybody," Burrus said. "But at the end of the day, we have to keep this program afloat."

The district's lunch debt hovers around $25,000-$30,000 each year, and Burrus said the reasons for the debt varies. Some families cannot afford it. Others forgot to pay their debt, and others simply just don't pay it.

Communication is key, she said. Some would qualify for the free and reduced-meal plan if they would apply for it. Families can apply for this anytime during the year but ideally, she said they should apply for it at the first of each school year so they don't accumulate debt. In addition, Burrus said the district is willing to work with families to help them pay off their debt.

Laffoon said the school has to use operating funds to pay off any debt at the end of the year to the federal Child Nutrition Fund. The district is not allowed to use any of its federal lunch money to pay off this debt.

Farmington also helps families with meals through its district food pantry. About 30 families have signed up to pick up food on Friday afternoons. The pantry provides a supplement for families and the food box usually includes milk, eggs, cereal, canned goods and fresh products.