Southwick man raising funds to decrease school meal debt

SOUTHWICK – Every day there’s another national news story about crippling student lunch debts.

Southwick resident Bill Dougherty kept seeing story after story about students who were going hungry, or who had hundreds of dollars in lunch debt, and wondered if the situation trickled into Southwick.

“I called the school expecting them to say it wasn’t a problem,” said Dougherty, “but I found out that it was.”

Dougherty said he spoke with the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Schools Nutrition Director Matthew Lillibridge and received some eye-opening information. The first of which made him proud to be a Southwick native.

“Southwick doesn’t deny students lunches,” he said. However, it doesn’t give them for free and some students, for various reasons, incur lunch debt.

“They’re not getting any federal help,” Dougherty said of the school department to cover the cost.

Dougherty said he was told high school seniors at Southwick Regional School cannot receive a cap and gown if they have a balance. Without help from somewhere, Dougherty said the school district’s hands are tied, but it’s the students who suffer.

“I don’t think they should be penalized because they need to eat,” he said.

To help alleviate the problem, Dougherty created a GoFundMe page and said he is working with the district to identify students in need of donations to pay their lunch debt.

“It’s anonymous,” said Dougherty. “I asked them to prioritize students and get these kids their caps and gowns.”

Dougherty already helped one student, who owed more than $300.

Dougherty said although he does not know the students or the total amount of district lunch debt, he believes taxpayers would end up paying the debt anyway.

“When they’re in the red, the superintendent has to find the money somewhere and that could be the taxpayers,” Dougherty said. “Why not pay it through donations?”

Dougherty attended Southwick schools through grade eight and said he just wanted to help.

“My grandmother Rita Jean Dougherty was a lunch lady for over 40 years,” he said. “I am doing this in her honor.”

STGRSD Director of Finance and Operations Stephen Presnal said as far as high school senior meal debt, there is a few hundred dollars outstanding. District-wide, however, is a bigger concern.

“It’s around $10,000,” Presnal said of what is owed for student meals. “That’s as large a number as we’ve ever seen, but it’s usually resolved by September.”

Presnal said there are many reasons students are not paying for their meals. He said families in need of assistance should apply for free or reduced lunch, which they can do online through the district website or they can fill out a paper form.

STGRSD’s School Committee is currently working on a policy for meal charging based on the USDA’s guidelines.

While STGRSD does have practices in place to encourage payment, such as withholding caps and gowns for graduating seniors, Presnal said they do not keep meals from students.

Presnal commended Dougherty’s passion for helping students, adding that the district is not part of the donation process and taking donations made through an online crowd funding platform can be complicated.

“The benefactor needs to give money to the family to make a payment or directly to a student’s account via our third-party vendor and he must have written permission from the family to do this,” Presnal said.

Full price lunch at Woodland Elementary and Powder Mill schools are $3, reduced price is .40 and milk is .50. Full price lunch at Southwick Regional School is $3.25, with the same price for reduced lunch.

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