Over 7,000 students see their lunch debts wiped after $1 million donation

Student lunch debt remains an ongoing challenge across the U.S.

January 26, 2024, 3:36 PM

Over 7,000 students in Georgia with unpaid lunch balances are getting a helping hand following a $1 million initiative from the Arby's Foundation, the nonprofit announced Thursday.

A total of 7,413 students in four public school districts in the metro Atlanta area will get their unpaid lunch debts paid, according to Arby's, which confirmed to "Good Morning America" Friday that it had finalized $203,534 in donations to City Schools of Decatur, Cobb County School District, Henry County School District and Fulton County School District. The foundation said the remaining nearly $800,000 will be earmarked for other schools across the country and is estimated to help over 47,000 students.

"The Arby's Foundation wholeheartedly believes that we should have reliable access to meals for children," Arby's brand president Rita Patel told "GMA." "Our purpose is really making sure that we continue to fight childhood hunger but that we're also supporting the communities where these children and families are thriving. So that's where we spend a lot of our energy and we make sure that we do it, again, nationwide, and we leverage our franchisee partners to come along on that journey with us."

PHOTO: Rita Patel seen here is the brand president at Arby's Foundation.
Rita Patel seen here is the brand president at Arby's Foundation.
ABC News

Student lunch debts remain an ongoing challenge across the U.S. with an estimated 30.4 million students carrying a combined student lunch debt of $262 million per year, according to the Education Data Initiative.

Last September, Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Peter Welch of Vermont introduced the School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act of 2023 to address the crisis. The legislation has since stalled in the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Henry County School District, which has more than 40,000 enrolled pupils, will see the most students benefit from the Arby's donation, with 4,276 students' collective $35,000 debt wiped out.

"We are grateful to the Arby's Foundation for the generous gift of $35,000, which supports healthy and nutritious school lunches so that kids can learn and ensures there are no current outstanding lunch balances across Henry County Schools," the district said in a statement to "GMA."

In the northwest Atlanta area, the Cobb County School District received $73,273 to settle the lunch balances of 1,295 students.

"We are extremely grateful to organizations in the community, like the Arby's Foundation, for helping us fuel student success," a district spokesperson for the Cobb County School District told "GMA" in a statement. "The most recent donation from the Arby's Foundation will assist Cobb families who qualify for free or reduced meals by clearing accrued debt. Those interested in supporting family stabilization efforts, learning interventions, and student scholarships can always team up with the Cobb Schools Foundation."

Another 1,077 students in Fulton County School District, which has over 93,000 students, will benefit from the financial assistance, with the fourth largest school district in Georgia receiving a $7,261 donation.

PHOTO: Students at Fulton County Schools in Georgia pose for a photo with their lunch meals.
Students at Fulton County Schools in Georgia pose for a photo with their lunch meals.
Courtesy of Fulton County Schools

"Fulton County Schools (FCS) is very grateful for Arby's generous offer to pay towards student lunch debt," the district said in a statement. "FCS values all of our partners, USDA, the state of Georgia and families who help to ensure our students have healthy breakfast and lunch options available."

City Schools of Decatur, which made headlines this week after announcing it would offer 765 students with outstanding lunch balances -- totaling $88,000 -- an "alternative meal" of cheese sandwiches starting in February, said it will roll back that plan.

PHOTO: Students eat lunch in school cafeteria in this undated file photo.
Students eat lunch in school cafeteria in this undated file photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

"We are delighted to confirm the $88,000 lunch debt has been eliminated thanks to the generosity of a corporate foundation grant. All past balances have been forgiven," the district told "GMA."

"CSD has less than a 10% poverty rate, and eligible families continue to receive regular meals through the National Lunch Program," they added. "We have also finalized agreements with organizations to provide additional assistance to individual families experiencing financial hardships. As a public school district, we often have to make difficult decisions. However, we remain committed to providing healthy meal options for all students while working diligently to proactively prevent future debt reoccurrences."

This isn't the first time the Arby's Foundation has paid off student lunch debts. The nonprofit teamed up with actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish last year to clear student lunch fees in Boardman, Ohio, the town where the fast-food restaurant chain was founded in back in 1964.

"We believe that every kid needs to start the day off right and make sure that they have good meals. Lunchtime should be something that they look forward to. So as we continue to build our foundation programs, this is an area that we have been and will continue to focus on as we move forward," Patel said.

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