EXCELSIOR — Excelsior Brewing Company has been throwing spare change and dollar bills in a growler for a few years, and now they’re going to use that money to pay off student lunch debt.
“Most schools have this sort of debt of kids that can’t pay for their lunch, but let them go in the hole so they can eat, obviously,” Caroline O’Halloran, Excelsior Brewing Company’s taproom and events manager, told Lakeshore Weekly News, adding families of kids who are going in the hole for lunch money are probably “trying to dig out of a few different holes — school lunch shouldn’t really be the worry.”
It’s been tradition for bartenders at the brewery to ring a bell and put a dollar from the tip jar in the 64-ounce growler every time they kick a keg in the taproom. They also often toss the random change from the register and tip jar in the growler. And when it fills up — it usually would take about $250 — the brewery uses the money to buy employee gifts, buy lunch or put it toward the holiday party, among other things.
Most recently, one of the brewery’s employees took the growler and bought beer for everyone for some “market research.”
“We all love beer, but we have plenty of it and access to a lot of it,” O’Halloran said as she gestured toward the brewing equipment.
O’Halloran was inspired to do something different with the money after seeing a story about a woman who donated some of her Christmas bonus to pay off lunch debt at the school in her community.
O’Halloran, who grew up in Eden Prairie but now lives in Minneapolis, said she couldn’t have imagined growing up where she did and then being the person who didn’t have enough money to buy lunch.
“Oh my God, I just can’t even imagine how hard that is for a kid,” O’Halloran said. “It breaks my heart.”
So, she pitched her idea at the brewery’s managers meeting on Monday, Jan. 21, and checked with the other employees to make sure they were OK with donating what is essentially their tip money to pay off student lunch debt. They loved the idea, and the plan was set in motion.
O’Halloran announced the plan to fill the growler and pay off student lunch debt on the brewery’s social media pages on Tuesday, Jan. 22. People in the area quickly responded, commenting about how great the idea is.
“Just seeing that reaction of ‘this is great’ and you know people are going to be showing up with their little Ziplocs of change. I know it,” O’Halloran said.
Knowing the community, and the fact they kick several kegs every day, the brewery knew they’d fill the growler with cash quickly, so they brought in a 6.5-gallon carboy (a jar used in homebrewing) and set it on the bar.
O’Halloran estimates the jar will hold close to $1,000, and is challenging the community to bring in their change so they can fill it up by the end of February. As of the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 28, O’Halloran estimated there was about $300 in the jar.
Once the jar is full, the brewery will use the money to pay off school lunch debt. The plan is to start with Minneapolis Public Schools “where the need is great” and go from there, O’Halloran said.
The hope is this becomes a tradition, and they’ll just keep filling the jar and donating the money to clear student lunch debt at schools that are most in need within Hennepin County.
“If this keeps going, how cool would it be to keep kids out of debt?” O’Halloran said. “What a great surprise for a parent. If we could just keep going in circles and make even a dent in that year by year?”
O’Halloran said Patrick Foss, one of the brewery’s co-owners, told her whatever amount they raise and donate to schools, he will personally donate to schools in East St. Paul, where he grew up.
At Minneapolis Public Schools, the district provides a regular lunch meal to all students regardless of their ability to pay for it, Julie Danzl, the student wellness manager with the district, told Lakeshore Weekly News.
The free lunch program guarantees meals for eligible students, but some who don’t qualify “have a really, really hard time making ends meet,” Bertrand Weber, Minneapolis Public Schools’ director of culinary and wellness services, said in a statement.
Currently, just over 3,200 students in the district have a negative lunch account balance, totaling $117,000. On average, the total negative lunch balance at the end of the school year ranges from about $120,000-$150,000, Danzl said.
When funds are donated to the district to help pay off students’ lunch debt, the money is “quickly applied to negative balances for families that are eligible for free/reduced lunch. However, the need continues to significantly outpace received donations,” Danzl said, who noted funds donated through AchieveMpls are reviewed monthly and applied to accounts of students and families in need.
But school lunch debt isn’t just a problem in major cities like Minneapolis. Students and families who don’t have enough money to pay for school lunch is widespread across the country.
According to the School Nutrition Association, 75.3 percent of school districts surveyed in 2018 reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Meanwhile, 40.2 percent of districts surveyed reported the number of students without adequate funds increased that year.
“I think sometimes people don’t realize that we have those kind of issues here in Minnetonka too, you know there’s always a perception of one way and we’ve got families of all shapes and sizes and varieties,” Jacob Westman, who works at Excelsior Brewing Company and is a teacher at Minnetonka Middle School East, told Lakeshore Weekly News.
Minnetonka Public Schools spokesperson JacQui Getty told Lakeshore Weekly News the school lunch debt in the district is “largely covered” by the PTOs, PTAs and others. In December, the Excelsior Lions Club donated $2,000 to Excelsior Elementary to pay off student lunch debt at the school for the year.
At the Westonka School District, all the negative meal account balances were wiped out thanks to donations made to the district’s Westonka Foodies Angel Fund. The district said 267 students had negative account balances totaling $4,684.70 heading into winter break.
“Your donated dollars help to ease the stress of children that do not have enough money in their meal accounts to eat school meals,” the district said in a statement.