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‘Lunch Equality’ Is the Goal for Haverhill Resident

  • Isidro Rodriguez, founder of Food 4 Kids, center, talks to a kindergarten class about drawing their favorite foods on Jan. 30, 2018, at Woodsville Elementary School in Woodsville, N.H. Rodriguez raises money to help less fortunate kids pay their lunch debt. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Isidro Rodriguez, founder of Food 4 Kids, is shown the classs' bearded dragon while meeting with the kids to talk about drawing their favorite foods on Jan. 30, 2018, at Woodsville Elementary School in Woodsville, N.H. Organized by Food 4 Kids, the students will draw postcards to send to the donors that have helped pay off lunch debt. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Isidro Rodriguez, founder of Food 4 Kids, talks to a kindergarten class about drawing their favorite foods on Jan. 30, 2018, at Woodsville Elementary School in Woodsville, N.H. Rodriguez raises money to help less fortunate kids pay their lunch debt. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Monday, February 19, 2018

In 1999, Isidro Rodriguez, then 8, moved with his mother and sisters from New York City to Woodsville, a huge adjustment in terms of culture, climate and the ethnic and racial composition of the population.

“Growing up here was rough sometimes, being treated like a curiosity or worse,” Rodriguez said. Because of that experience, he said, he’s never forgotten what it can be like for children who feel like outsiders.

“I remember being a kid and having to give up lunches. I was isolated not only by the color of my skin but also by my financial status,” Rodriguez said in an interview in Woodsville last month.

That sensitivity prompted him to raise funds recently to help address a perennial problem for both schools and families: school lunch debt.

Rodriguez, a photographer and graphic designer who lives in North Haverhill, terms his initiative “Food4Kids,” and the core issue, he said, is “lunch equality.”

The goal of Food4Kids is to ensure that children have equal access to lunch and snacks, regardless of ability to pay. Initially, at least, this would augment existing free and reduced lunch programs in public schools in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Beginning in December Rodriguez raised more than $4,300 through a raffle and donations from small businesses and individuals, which was enough to clear the school lunch debts at the eight public schools in SAU 23, which comprises the towns of Haverhill, Piermont, Warren and Bath, said Carol Smith, an administrative assistant to SAU 23 Superintendent Laurie Melanson.

In all, 147 accounts were cleared. Enough money was raised to also pay for a fresh fruit snack program at the Haverhill Cooperative Middle School, Smith said.

“I can’t tell you how excited we were for him to come forward,” Smith said.

“He’s a dynamic personality and he’s joyful,” Melanson said.

Rodriguez, who also donated more than $500 he’d earned from his photography business, recalled two gifts of $200 each from strangers who approached him after they’d heard about his initiative. “Things like that were pretty amazing.”

Although most elementary schools do not refuse students a school lunch, regardless of their ability to pay, students are not allowed to charge for snacks or milk if the family has run up a debt.

“Younger kids without money will get a lunch, but no snacks or extras,” said Melanson.

If families are not able to pay off their school lunch debt, Melanson said, somebody pays for it eventually— namely, the taxpayer.

“It’s a federal regulation that schools can't carry over a negative balance,” said Nancy Bradford-Sisson, a program specialist in the Bureau of Nutrition in the New Hampshire Department of Education. Whatever balances are left at the end of a year are usually paid for out of a school’s general fund, which is, she said, taxpayer money.

All things considered, Melanson would prefer not to have to go after families. “I don’t want to be a collector for lunch accounts,” she said.

Schools try to handle the problem so that an inability to pay, and accumulated debt, doesn’t embarrass the child. “We try and work through it in a way that’s considerate to children and families,” said Jay Marshall, an instructional leader at Woodsville Elementary School who also knows Rodriguez. But the stigma can linger, which is why Marshall lauds Rodriguez’s initiative.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea, if nothing else to support families that may have difficulties for one reason or another. ... I think it’s a good thing for schools to do,” Marshall said.

Additionally, he said, talking to students about Rodriguez’s initiative has been an opportunity to discuss the nature of philanthropy, and how anyone with drive and organization can help alleviate or solve social problems.

Whether Food4Kids could work statewide is another question, because of local control, said Bradford-Sisson. “Each SAU sets its own charging policies; each SAU sets its negative balances differently.”

Each SAU — and there are more than 90 in New Hampshire-— knows its communities and populations, she said.  “It makes sense.”

In Haverhill, the school lunch debt cancellation has worked so well that Rodriguez has now teamed up with Red Kite Candy in Bradford to raise money for Food4Kids, which aims to expand the program to other school districts in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Several times a year, Red Kite, as part of its Candy Lab, in which people submit ideas for a new candy, donates all the profits from that particular candy to a noteworthy cause during the one month that the new candy is on sale. After Rodriguez did a cold call on the Bradford company, Red Kite signed on. This month, the cause is Food4Kids.

Rodriguez is investigating how to turn Food4Kids into a nonprofit organization, and how to secure grants to continue its work. The ideas come tumbling out: Improving the quality of public school lunches, adding to the farm-to-school program in the region through larger-scale production of vegetables on donated land, a bee sanctuary and increased culinary education for elementary and high school students.

“There’s ‘unity’ in ‘community,’ literally and figuratively,” Rodriguez said. “I’d love to rehabilitate our country through food.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.