Lapeer restaurant owner paying down local school lunch debt

Residents that call Lapeer home consider the area a big little town. A slice of civilization with a local community cohesion.

It's a city where "the sum is greater than its parts," said Jessica Harold.

Harold, along with her partner in life and business Patrick Hingst, are earning that title. Together, the two are tackling a ballooning problem among children: school lunch debt. 

In the seven schools that surround the couple's business, debt tied to school lunches is near $21,000. That means many of the students going through the lunch lines aren't getting hot meals. 

"They go from getting a really nice hot meal to getting a lesser meal," Harold said. "How are they supposed to focus on learning, what they are there for? 

"But also, there is this stigma. You're sitting at a table with your friends and they all have a hot meal and you have the lesser meal."

There are also consequences for health and education since children who are well-fed perform better in schools. The issue gained some attention during the pandemic when the government stepped in and took care of student lunches. 

But that safety net ended Jan. 1. Since then, financial problems have only worsened in the country.

"We placed some calls and found out that the debt had swelled," Hingst said. "That, as inflation picked up and the economy dropped, more students weren't qualifying for free lunch but their families were still struggling."

So Hingst and Harold, who manage Woodchips Barbeque, Eggroll Factory, Kookys n Cream, and Oxford Wing Co, came up with an idea: They'll pay down some of that debt. 

To stop the bleeding, the two designated every Tuesday at their businesses Giving Tuesdays. Proceeds go directly to their student lunch debt initiative. 

That means any money spent at those restaurants, including from online orders or gift card will be donated. 

The couple hope those in Lansing are listening. 

"It’s our hope that Governor Whitmer and the new leaders of the legislature will listen to this, take up the cause and really take a hard look at what opportunities exist for us to be able to have a long term solution here," Hingst said. 

"There's certain things that should be able to transcend political divides and partisanship and taking care of the kids in governmental schools should be something we can all come together on and find creative solutions to."