This time last year, Suwanee resident Alessandra Ferrara-Miller was delivering checks to elementary schools in the North Gwinnett cluster, helping pay off the lunch debts of children and families who live just a few miles from her.
Bringing lunch accounts to zero was exciting and fulfilling, but something still bothered her, she said.
“When we pay off the lunch debt that’s sort of a Band-Aid solution,” Ferrara-Miller said. “It’s a very crucial first step, but not the biggest step.”
After lunch debts are paid off, many students go back into the debt the following day, so All For Lunch took another step to keep families out of debt by establishing reserve accounts for recipient schools.
All For Lunch launched reserve funds this year. The reserve accounts act as safety nets for kids at the school if they ever find they do not have money in their lunch account, they can utilize the funds in the All for Lunch account to cover the cost of their meal rather than going into lunch debt.
When a school receives a donation, principals and cafeteria managers are granted access to the reserve accounts. Once a student’s lunch balance goes into the red, cafeteria managers can draw from the reserve account.
“Reserve accounts have been our primary focus this last year,” Ferrara-Miller said.
This year, the Gwinnett-based nonprofit cleared account balances and established reserves for elementary schools in the Duluth cluster: Chattahoochee Elementary, Chesney Elementary, Berkeley Lake Elementary and Harris Elementary. Ferrara-Miller has also been to Lanier cluster schools Sugar Hill Elementary and Sycamore Elementary.
In 2018, All For Lunch paid off local debts at four local elementary schools: Suwanee Elementary, Roberts Elementary, Riverside Elementary and Level Creek Elementary. The total donations amounted to $500. Now the organization has raised $16,000, 100% of which went to help local schools.
While Ferrara-Miller said she’s noticed awareness for food insecurity growing overall — data from the Community Foundation of Northeast Georgia shows 10% of Gwinnett County, roughly 90,000 people, are considered food insecure. She said most people where she lives in the northern region of the county, however, don’t realize there are families with children living close by who are unable to afford school lunches.
She’s also driven by the stories of embarrassment she’s heard about children who don’t understand debt and that their lunch is different from their classmates’. She shuddered at the thought of a kindergartener feeling punished after going through a lunch line only to find out they had to give back what they put on their tray.
”Almost every school I visited … the checkout is at the end of the line,” Ferrara-Miller said. “Some of these kids can’t comprehend the lunch account or lunch debt. They get to the end to check out and find out they have to give things back.”
In Gwinnett County Public Schools, student lunches for elementary schoolers cost $2.25 or $.40 on reduced lunch. Parents and guardians submit applications to receive free or reduced lunch.
While the primary focus of the organization is in Gwinnett County schools where the bulk of the donors are based, All for Lunch continues an ambitious mission to impact schools all over the northeast-metro area. During the past year, All For Lunch has made 35 donations at 21 schools in three counties.
The organization currently relies solely on donations, mostly spread through word-of-mouth. Ferrara-Miller said All for Lunch is a 501(c)3 nonprofit so all donations are tax-deductible and 100% of donations that come in can go directly back to the schools.
She’s still a one-woman show. As the only staff of the organization, All for Lunch operates with zero overhead and she personally covers expenses to guarantee every dollar donated to the organization goes directly to help pay off lunch debt and fund the All for Lunch reserve accounts.
“Our growth was amazing,” she said. “Right now we’re relying on individual donors. My goal this year is to partner with businesses and communities.”