BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A good Samaritan has made a $1,000 donation to pay off the outstanding lunch bills of 62 Berkeley Elementary School students, according to Principal Natashia Baxter.
She said she was recently contacted by a Christian ministry and told the debt for the students’ free or reduced lunches would be paid in full to Oct. 21. Baxter did not know how the ministry learned about the debt and was told the person who provided that information to the ministry was to remain anonymous.
However, the donation came from John Carrino, a Bloomfield High School graduate, Class of 1993. Carrino is an Oldwick attorney who is a member of the Liquid Church of Morris County in Parsippany with his own ministry. In a telephone interview earlier this week, Carrino said a number of Liquid Churches in New Jersey had decided to use their collections as contributions to local schools to pay for student meals. Carrino liked the idea.
“It got me to thinking,” he said, “and I told a friend who works for a school that maybe we could do something together.”
It was from this friend that Carrino learned about the Berkeley Elementary lunch bill. He contacted Baxter and learned it was about $1,000 and told her that he would be happy to pay it.
“It was an act of faith,” Carrino told The Independent Press. “I give gifts on behalf of the ministry of Jesus.”
Depending on family income, Bloomfield students are required to pay full price for lunch, or else receive it at a reduced rate or for free. If a child is eligible for a reduced or free lunch, the federal government pays the outstanding balance.
“Every year, the parents have to complete an application to determine what sort of lunch,” Baxter said. “The deadline was Oct. 15.”
But although some children are eligible for free or reduced lunches, Baxter said their parents do not fill out the application.
“There’s a lot of apprehension from undocumented immigrants,” she said, noting that a number of Berkeley School parents fall into this category or otherwise are afraid to provide personal information. “A full price lunch is $2.85 a day. That becomes pretty costly.”
By the end of September, some Berkeley students owed as much as $60 in lunch fees. Baxter, who works lunchroom duty, said she gets to see firsthand the results of unpaid bills: Students stopped eating even though the school never denies them lunch.
“Children are blatantly honest,” she said. “They were told not to get into line for lunch. Parents were telling them not to take lunch.”
Some aid arrived from Berkeley Home and School Association in the form of food packages, and teachers also brought snacks for hungry children. Students also staved off hunger by asking to have their free breakfasts from the “Breakfast After the Bell” program saved for lunchtime. All Berkeley students are eligible for the free breakfasts.
“You cannot really say ‘yes’ to that,” Baxter said. “We have allowed it, but it’s not a good answer. They should eat breakfast at breakfast time.”
When Baxter learned that someone was willing to donate $1,000 to help her students, she cried.
“Everyone was excited about it,” she said. “It was the first time in the five years I’ve been here that anyone has reached out to help.”
She immediately contacted Vicky Guo, the Bloomfield School District business administrator, to learn how the donation had to be handled. In an email to The Independent Press, Guo said the current unpaid balance for breakfasts and lunches, districtwide, is $1,991, with most of that being lunch debts. At the end of last school year, as of June 30, 2019, the breakfast and lunch debt was $7,033.
“We made every effort to collect outstanding balances as they are from paid students and/or reduced students,” Guo said. “It’s important for parents to file lunch applications so their child/children’s lunch status would reflect their ability to pay.
“The district has to take a loss at the end of the school year for the uncollected amount,” she continued. “The auditor reviews outstanding balances from year to year. In the event outstanding balances increased, a corrective action plan has to be in place.”
Bloomfield Superintendent of Schools Sal Goncalves said in an email to The Independent Press that the district and school board are very appreciative of the generosity.
School lunch debt and “lunch shaming” made national news recently when the Cherry Hill School District said it would not accept a donation to pay off student lunch debts totalling $16,500. According to published reports, Cherry Hill Superintendent of Schools Joe Meloche said the district policy was to give principals the discretion to withhold certain privileges, such as extracurricular activities, from students with unpaid lunch bills over $75.
Also reported was the increasing national student lunch debts as measured by the nonprofit School Nutrition Association.
Baxter said she and her staff will continue to monitor the debt problem and hope that parents fill out the applications.
“I don’t know the answer to this,” she said. “Families don’t fill out the application for a lot of reasons and I know those families. “The kindergarten kids, they’re new to the school so I don’t know the family’s apprehension. I can’t imagine we’re the only school with this problem.”