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The sign for the Erase Student Lunch Debt fundraiser being held by Prairie Pages in Pierre. The fundraiser aims to raise money for Pierre and Stanley County School District students who have lunch debt during the school year. Arpan Lobo/Capital Journal

Throughout the month of December, one local business is donating a percentage of their profits to local students. The Erase Student Lunch Debt fundraiser aims to help students in Stanley County and Pierre school districts free themselves and their families of debt associated with the costs of eating during a typical school day.

The fundraiser was an idea started by Prairie Pages co-owner, Amanda Thronsen. Thronsen also works as a teacher at Stanley County School District.

According to Pierre School District business manager Darla Mayer, about a third of the district’s elementary school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, with the majority of that percentage falling into the former category. The National School Lunch Program allows families in need of financial assistance to purchase school lunches for 40 cents, or breakfast for 30 cents or for free.

Mayer added that there are still families who do not qualify for free or reduced lunches who fall behind on payments. This can be because of financial difficulties or just due to forgetting to pay off the account.

Pierre board policy allows students to go up to five meals in debt, Mayer said, because the goal is to keep children from going hungry throughout the day. A 2015 study by the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy found that hunger can have an adverse effect on a child’s cognitive abilities. If a student goes the entire school day without eating, there might be a negative consequence to their academic performance.

“One of the most important things a student needs is a full stomach,” said Josh Penrod, a manager at Prairie Pages. Penrod said that Thronsen brought up the idea during a staff meeting, and the Prairie Pages team was fully behind it.

Right now, Pierre School District has a system in place to make sure parents are aware of account balances. It involves notifying parents through emails, notes sent home and food service director Liz Marso reaching out to families to make sure they know about the National School Lunch Program.

“Once a student’s meal balance gets close to zero, we are reaching out to the parent (via email, text message or phone call) to remind them to deposit funds to their child’s school lunch account,” Mayer said via email. “ With our online system, a deposit can be made and funds can be available immediately for the student. These steps help to prevent school meal debt from getting out of hand.”

Pierre School District finished the 2017-2018 school year with almost $400, with outstanding balances averaging from 5 cents to $13, according to Mayer. Still, she added, the district had prepaid or positive balances of almost $33,000.

“We do have a system in place to help those families who have gotten behind and need some assistance to get their child’s meal balance back on the plus side,” Mayer said.

While the fundraiser will continue until the end of the month, Penrod said that Prairie Pages has already raised over $1,000 in donations alone. He said that Prairie Pages is challenging other local businesses to raise money as well, aiming to end the issue of lunch debt in Pierre and Stanley County School Districts.

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