So far, community members have given $950 to Crook County students' school meal debt

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Outstanding meal charges owed to Crook County School District total nearly $27,000.

When news came out that Crook County families owed nearly $27,000 for school meals and some risked being sent to a collection agency, a few local folks felt a tug on their heartstrings.

"I wish there was a way that we could just help out," Prineville resident Priscilla Smith told a friend during a recent Postcard Party.

In turn, her friend, Trisha Beverly, made a phone call to the Crook County School District office and ended up making a tax-deductible cash donation to help alleviate some students' meal debt.

"Since the (Central Oregonian) article reporting $27,000 in unpaid cafeteria accounts, we have had many phone calls from community members expressing a desire to make donations to help these families pay their charges," said Mindi Nelson, the nutrition services eligibility official for the school district.

She said the responses that she has personally experienced from the community have been positive.

"Many want to help families and have expressed appreciation for the district's choice to feed children whether we have received payments from their family or not," Nelson said. "They have also stated that they are wanting to help because they understand families are struggling financially, and they do not want children to be concerned about eating so they can focus on learning."

As of Wednesday, Nelson reported that the district has received five donations resulting in $950 being credited toward unpaid cafeteria balances.

She said the donated funds are applied to student accounts based on financial need.

"We typically start with the lowest balances first, since this allows us to help more families," Nelson explained.

CCSD Director of Business and Finance Anna Logan reported that at the end of June, the outstanding meal charges were $26,692, ranging from five cents to $768, with the average being $55.

CCSD Nutrition Services Supervisor Dana Rudy said she believes a lot of families are just shy of qualifying for free or reduced school meals and simply cannot afford to pay their children's breakfast and lunch bills. Additionally, some families may not realize they need to reapply each year for the free and reduced meal program.

Logan said if student meal balances are more than $200 at the end of the school year and they haven't made an effort to arrange a payment plan and make regular payments, then the district will send them to a collection agency.

Nelson said the district has had several families pay their debt following the July 18 news article.

"We have collected about $1,000 from families since the report came out," she said.

But Beverly and Smith, who have donated to the cause, say they would like the district to make it easier for people to give.

The two belong to a group that meets twice a month to write postcards to government officials about political concerns.

"We try to keep up with current events, and we write about things that we're concerned about that are currently under consideration, like healthcare and education," Smith said of the Postcard Parties.

It was during their July 23 meeting that the topic of school meal debt came up.

"People get hit up all the time by different charities to adopt kids financially in Third World countries and around the world, and I said I would just as soon give my money locally and help somebody that needs it here," Smith recalled.

Smith told Nelson she would like to donate monthly once the school district is able to set up automatic payments through their website.

"In response, Crook County School District is currently working on a way for people to donate directly from our website and hope to have it ready before school starts," Nelson said, adding that until then, donations can be made by cash, check or credit card at the district office.

Nelson provided Smith with a receipt because her donation is tax deductible.

"That's another reason to donate, because it is tax deductible. A lot of people are looking for a way to reduce their tax burden," Smith said. "I'm really tickled that this is getting some legs under it."

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