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La Crosse school lunch debt eclipses $14,000, while district works with families, community to keep kids fed



FILE - Kids look at items from the Central Cares La Cocina food Pantry at Central High School (submitted photo)

About halfway through the school year, and the school lunch debt numbers are adding up in La Crosse.

Over the past two years, this wasn’t an issue, because a federal government program provided free school meals to every student. That, however, ended last summer, and meal debt for La Crosse School District families has hit $14,224 through October.

Within the district, 48 percent of students — 2,657 students — are eligible for free-reduced meals. Of that number, nearly half — 1,278 —  are elementary students.


Current School Lunch Debt (through October):  $14,224
Past Lunch Debt:
2017 End-of-Year Meal Debt Clear:  $5,324
2018 End-of-Year Meal Debt Clear: $7,511
2019 End-of-Year Meal Debt Clear:  $10,626
2020: End of Year Meal Debt Clear: $10,975
2021: $0 (All Students received free meals)
2022: $0 (All Students received free meals)

Brad Bryan runs Central High School’s food pantry, called La Cocina, and is working on other ways to help students.

“The kids, they can’t go hungry,” Bryan said recently on La Crosse Talk PM. “Being hungry at school means they’re not learning.

“If we’re going to make kids come to school, the least we can do is feed them while they’re there, or make sure they’re not hungry,” Bryan added. “So, in addition to the food pantry that we have, I have a smaller food pantry that any teacher has a key, they can open up the cabinet. They can take out food and the kids can eat that day.”

The success coach, however, is trying to evolve La Cocina into more than a food pantry. He’s rebranding the name to Central Cares.

Through the food pantry, Bryan can only use funding on food. Through Central Cares, he can acquire hygiene products, which are also highly needed. 

“Generally, I don’t want anybody’s food donations,” Bryan said, “but if anybody out there wants to give me a bunch of toothbrushes, antiperspirant, shampoo and conditioner — anything like that — I would gladly take it.”

Bryan added that checks to Central High School with “Central Cares” in the memo go a long way, too.

Donations from the community are often the fix to these dilemmas. School Lunch debt in the past has been paid off in that way, through groups like the Beer By Bike Brigade, which sounds like a bunch of people who bike around drinking beer. And they do that, but they are also finding multiple ways to help those in need throughout the Coulee Region.

The La Crosse School District’s nutrition director, Marilyn Volden, said they’re working to help families pay off the debt, now that the free school meals program has ended.

“It was wonderful to have all students be able to have access to free meals during the pandemic,” Volden said in an email to WIZM. “Since the end of the universal free meals, we have spent a tremendous amount of time tracking meal status, account balances, and working with families to provide access to meals at school through free/reduced meal applications.

Volden added that they are working with schools to get enrolled in what’s called CEP (Community Eligibility Program). 

“All students in those buildings get a free breakfast and lunch each school day,” she said.

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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