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Wyoming first lady Jennie Gordon hugs Brian Rohrbacher, president and CEO of Atlantic City Federal Credit Union, as she announces the elimination of school meal debt across the state of Wyoming on Wednesday at the Governor’s Residence. The first lady partnered with the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, Mountain West Credit Union Foundation, and Dan and Cynthia Starks to pay off the meal debt for more than 3,000 students and their families. Rhianna Gelhart/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – More than 3,000 Wyoming students will no longer have a negative balance in their school meal accounts.

With the launch of “Wyoming Angel Accounts,” first lady Jennie Gordon’s Wyoming Hunger Initiative, the Mountain West Credit Union Foundation, and Dan and Cynthia Starks of Dubois contributed to the elimination of close to $100,000 in meal debt throughout Wyoming – the entirety of the state’s balance.

“I really feel, and many of the food service directors here do, that the debt is between the school district and the parents, and the children should not suffer for it,” Gordon said at Wednesday afternoon ceremony at the Governor’s Residence. “So, we launched the Angel Accounts program to help alleviate the situation.”

Across 28 school districts, $99,485.61 in meal debt for 3,224 children was wiped out. Amounts ranged from $46,673.20 in Albany County School District 1 to just 35 cents in Washakie County School District 1.

The fund took care of $97.39 in meal debt in Laramie County School District 2, while LCSD1 did not have any.

The Mountain West Credit Union Foundation partnered with local credit unions across the state to raise $40,000, and Dan Starks, founder of the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, and his wife, Cynthia, matched that number. Wyoming’s John P. Ellbogen Foundation, Gov. Mark Gordon’s salary donation and numerous small individual donations made up the difference.

According to the Wyoming Hunger Initiative, 75% of school districts in the state reported school meal debt, and 40% said their debt was growing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. No one was addressing this need until the launch of Wyoming Angel Accounts, the organization said.

In conversations with food service directors across the state, Gordon said she’d learned some districts took steps to try to prevent meal debt, such as giving out a cheese sandwich lunch instead of a hot meal for students who had a negative balance.

“But many children were calling it the ‘sandwich of shame,’” she said. “Some kids prefer to go hungry, rather than take that sandwich.”

Other districts decided to continue giving hot meals to students with lunch debt, which Gordon commended, but this meant digging an even deeper hole for students.

In September, the Mountain West Credit Union Foundation and the Starkses – in partnership with the Wyoming Hunger Initiative – got together to eliminate all of the school meal debt in Fremont County, totaling $10,239, and clearing the balances of 725 students.

After that, the two groups asked how they could get rid of the remaining meal debt balance in the state.

“Student lunch debt is a tremendous stress on the families and the students, and also the communities ... and there’s going to be a lot of burdens that are going to be relieved after today,” said Brian Rohrbacher, president and CEO of Atlantic City Federal Credit Union. “I think of the saying: ‘If you don’t take chances, nothing happens.’ Well, I hope after this that we continue to take a bunch more chances.”

Dan Starks praised the work of Jennie Gordon and the rest of the Wyoming Hunger Initiative team, as well as the contributions of the credit unions. But he reminded everyone in the room that their work wasn’t done.

“Even though we have so much as a group here to be proud of and what we’re all doing together to help schoolchildren have exactly the kind of lunch environment that they ought to have, there are more people hungry,” Starks said. “We’re looking forward to continuing to collaborate with the first lady and with all of your constituencies to take the next step to continue to help veterans, as well as help the children who are food insecure.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue reimbursing schools and child-care centers for free meals to all students, regardless of income, through the 2021-22 school year. The federal government began providing the free meals as a response to the ongoing pandemic.

Launched in October 2019, the Wyoming Hunger Initiative aims to increase awareness and provide support for anti-hunger organizations throughout the state. It also works to find sustainable solutions at a statewide level to ensure no child goes hungry, which aligns with this effort to get rid of student meal debt.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.

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