When an elementary or middle school student can't pay for lunch, that student will run up lunch debt. Students with debt are sometimes given an "alternative meal" instead of a hot lunch, and that could lead to shame and embarrassment. Recently a man in North Haverhill launched an effort to wipe out kids' lunch debt in his local schools...and is now promoting what he calls "lunch equality."
For Isidro Rodriguez, it started in 2009, when he was working in the Woodsville Elementary school cafeteria and saw what happened to kids with lunch debt. The student would take a tray of hot food...
"And then upon checking out, they'll give their numbers, or enter their numbers into the system. If there's a negative balance, most of the time they take that lunch back," Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez says the policy was to throw out that hot lunch and give the student an alternative meal. At Woodsville Elementary, that meant a sandwich made with sunbutter, which is like peanut butter but made with sunflower seeds.
"So that adversity of having to give your lunch back is shameful and hurtful."
So Rodriguez, who has a background in culinary arts, started "Pizza Fridays" at the school. He made gourmet pizzas like pear gorgonzola and Canadian bacon and cheddar and sold them to teachers for $2.50 a slice.
"What $2.50 cents meant was that a kid would eat. So these teachers didn't know that they were paying for the lunches of these students, which is pretty amazing. So there was never a negative lunch account."
He eventually left that job, but the image of those kids walking away without a hot meal bothered him. When he talks about food, Rodriguez frequently uses the word "love." A sign on the wall in his apartment reads: Love is the best ingredient. He recalls how, when he was growing up in New York, his single mom would travel three hours away to get real Dominican spices for him and his sisters.
Rodriguez went on to launch a photography business, and last month, his local school district hired him to take pictures of students at an event.
"So I was like, I'll do you one better," he says. "I'll donate any proceeds I make for kids who may need lunch, so they can have a source of income for that."
It came to about $250, but then he learned that the total lunch debt at the school was $1,400.
"I'm like, $250 is not gonna cut it. So I got my butt in gear and started working."
He gathered donated trinkets and gift certificates from local businesses and sold raffle tickets for $5 bucks each, and in less than a month, raised nearly $4,500.
"This was exceptional. He's an exceptional young man," says Laurie Melanson, superintendent of SAU 23, the beneficiary of Rodriguez's fundraising. "He now has enough funds to not only pay off the three Haverhill schools' student lunch accounts, but also Bath, Warren, and Piermont."
Melanson says to her knowledge, in her district only one student has had to swap out a hot lunch for a sunbutter sandwich because of lunch debt. The policy there is to give the kids hot meals and worry about the money later.
But the policy differs elsewhere. In Manchester, for example, kids can get an alternative meal if they have a negative balance, but only after parents have been notified. That alternative meal is cereal and milk. Concord schools also offer an alternative meal and may pursue "legal remedies" if parents don't pay or create a payment plan by the end of the year.
"These are all gift certificates. You're seeing a lot of them, right?"
In his North Haverhill apartment earlier this week, Isidro Rodriguez kept raffle prizes in piles. Original artwork by local painters, a Lego set, flea medications for pets.
"Gift certificates for everything," he says. "A floral shop to just manis and pedis, the ladies out there are gonna get hooked up! There's just a lot of cool stuff."
Stuff that can be raffled off to cut down on kids' lunch debt. In the coming months, Rodriguez is hoping to launch a nonprofit organization that can keep paying off kids' lunch debt. He says he takes inspiration from his mother, who he says sacrificed a lot for him and his sisters, trading, as he puts it, the Big Apple for New Hampshire's apple orchards.
"For her to have left her culture, to leave everything she knew, that Dominican lifestyle, that graffiti on walls, that subway station errrrt! All those little things that make you who you are—she gave all that up for her three children to have a better life. And here I am, the fruits of her labor. That's pretty cool."
"Making life better for other people," I say.
"Yeah, why not? It feels good to be good. And do good. It really does."