WATERVILLE — Children attending Waterville schools who are unable to pay for their lunches will get help from the proceeds of an online auction that continues until 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The auction, hosted by Friends of Waterville Public Schools and Waterville Elementary PTO, offers gift certificates, toys and other items, many of which are donated by area businesses through a Colby College senior seminar project called “auctions.”

The Friends of Waterville Public Schools and the PTO group are working on the auction in conjunction with the Colby seminar taught by Tim Hubbard, associate professor of economics. The 15 seniors in the seminar are all economics majors.

Parents of Waterville public school students each year may apply for free lunches or lunches at a reduced cost. Children who qualify for reduced lunches but who cannot pay the balance often rack up a balance of $200 or $300, according to Lori Hartin, Child Nutrition Services director for Waterville schools.

A school lunch in Waterville costs $2.90 per child, and a lunch for a child who qualifies for reduced lunch is 40 cents, she said.

Many parents do not apply for the lunch program, even though their children may qualify, as they are proud and they do not want to stand out, according to Hartin. But the confidential process includes obtaining a one-page application from a school, filling it out and submitting it, after which Hartin’s office verifies the information with the state, she said.

Because schools receive federal funding for lunches and the schools get reimbursed by the government, schools must follow guidelines for the free and reduced process and pay any bills families can not pay.

The schools have a “no shame” process, where students who cannot pay for lunch must not be singled out, and staff should not take away a food tray from students or treat them differently in any way, according to Hartin. Still, the schools have to find ways of funding the gap.

“We have kids with two, three hundred dollar balances and we’re trying to fix that, but there’s just more to the puzzle than simply saying, ‘this is what you owe,'” Hartin said Sunday.

Also, an application may be filed on a Thursday and the child may be approved for free lunch, but the approval is retroactive only to the first of that month and not for months before that, she said. Also, some families may miss the eligibility requirements by just a few dollars.

“That becomes a sticking point, not only in my district but other districts, where they have huge, unpaid bills for lunches,” Hartin said.

FIXING THE FUNDING GAP

For the last three holiday seasons, Cassie Julia-Ferris and her husband, Tom Ferris, of Friends of Waterville Public Schools, have paid off overdue lunch balances for children in a Waterville school and the couple inspired Waterville City Councilor Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, and her husband, Scott Beale, to follow suit last year, according to Julia-Ferris.

“Funds from last year’s PTO auction went to pay off balances at the other two schools that our direct donations did not cover, so all Waterville students were able to start fresh this school year,” Julia-Ferris said.

In 2017, Julia-Ferris met Hubbard, the Colby instructor, at a meeting where school lunch funding was discussed and Hubbard devised the idea of having his class get involved in the charity auction. He spoke with Tate, a fellow Colby instructor, about it and applied for and received a small grant to use for purchasing auction items, he said.

Several businesses and community members donated items directly to the auction effort after Colby students in Hubbard’s seminar approached them.

Colby students in the auction class would buy a gift certificate or item from a local business, for instance, and mention that if the business wanted to donate to the auction effort they could do so. That way, the students contributed to the local economy while offering a way for businesses to support the lunch effort, according to Hubbard.

“Almost all local businesses have been so, so supportive of that,” Hubbard said Sunday.

The seminar is serving as a model for other instructors.

“It’s unusual for a course on auctions to be taught at the undergraduate level,” said Hubbard who wrote a book titled “Auctions,” published by MIT Press. “Structuring a course in which students can apply what they’re learning in a way that also benefits the local community makes this experience even more unique. I’m grateful to be at an institution that supports not just learning outcomes for students, but the well-being of people in our community as well.”

Proceeds from the auction will go toward helping to prepay lunches for children who are on the reduced lunch program who should probably qualify for free lunch but don’t because they just barely miss the minimum requirement, according to Julia-Ferris.

Auction proceeds will be split between the elementary PTO, to help fund enrichment programs for children in kindergarten through grade five, and the reduced lunch fund for children in kindergarten through grade 12.

Hot lunch is often the only meal some kids have in the entire day, according to Julia-Ferris and Hartin.

This year, an auction item for $75 is being featured which will prepay lunch for a child for a whole year, and a $38 option that buys lunch for half the year. The money will go directly to the superintendent’s office to help reduce the burden, according to Julia-Ferris. The cost to prepay lunch for all children in kindergarten through grade 12 who qualify for reduced lunch for the rest of this school year is roughly $6,500, she said.

The auction can be viewed at www.charityauctionstoday.com/auctions/wpsauction2018-6339.

The direct link to prepay lunch for 1/2 year: www.charityauctionstoday.com/auctions/wpsauction2018-6339/items/pre-pay12yearofreducedlunchfeeforawpsstudent-123448?category_id=0

The direct link to prepay lunch for whole year: www.charityauctionstoday.com/auctions/wpsauction2018-6339/items/pre-payoneyearofreducedlunchfeeforawpsstudent-123166?category_id=0

RAISING AWARENESS

Hartin, the food service director, said when she started working in the schools a year ago, she was flabbergasted by the number of children needing assistance with lunches in Waterville Winslow and Vassalboro schools, where she also oversees nutrition programs.

“Our summer (lunch) program really showed huge numbers for Waterville,” Hartin said. “I was shocked. The programs are there to help and it’s just trying to get that application process done.”

She said she thinks one way to raise awareness is to attend school open houses and make sure parents know she is available to explain the process and that filing applications is essential.

It is also important the schools pay the bills as required by federal guidelines, she said.

“We don’t have extra funds. We are self-sufficient and we need to make sure these are paid because of the requirements. It’s really a lot of catch-22s in this that you have to look at. The biggest thing is the food service program in any district is (there) to make sure kids are fed and they don’t go hungry and are given the most nutritious meal we can give.”

Hartin said the efforts of those doing the online auction provides important relief for schools and children.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s huge, huge huge.”

Julia-Ferris said she and the others are committed to helping children. About $4,000 has been raised so far in the auction and they hope to surpass $5,000 by the time the auction ends Tuesday.

“It’s a cause dear to our hearts, and (we) hope the rest of Waterville has the same reaction and rallies to help raise money to prepay kids’ reduced lunch fees,” she said. “It’s a chance to have a real and direct impact in our own community.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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