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Running for lunch money
MS -- Stella Burrill vertical
Richmond Hill Elementary third-grader Stella Burrill poses with a school lunch. - photo by Photo by Mark Swendra

See a related story at Running for health

Pay it forward. It’s sometimes an overused cliché.

But there might not be any better words to describe the actions of several hundred area running enthusiasts, led by a Richmond Hill mom, whose donations help Bryan County schools ensure that all students aren’t deprived of full school lunches.

It wasn’t until her son David disclosed last year that he wasn’t always getting his regular school meals at Richmond Elementary School, but instead a reduced lunch consisting of milk, a fruit and vegetable, that Sara Maltby took notice.

For David, 8 at the time, the change in menu was simply the result of a mistake in the automated draft of a debit card, indicating the family did not pay. It was easily corrected and David’s full meals resumed. Although this seemed to be an isolated incident, Maltby was determined from that point that no child should ever go without a full lunch — regardless of payment.

Surely, she thought, there must be money — a fund — something as a backup that could be used to pay for children’s meals if their parents couldn’t provide.

Bryan County School Nutrition Program Director Carole Knight said the school lunch program is essentially self-supporting. No ESPLOST funds, just direct lunch sales and a federal reimbursement based on federal guidelines.

But despite that, "We’re not going to deprive anyone a meal. We don’t let a child go hungry," Knight emphasized.

As she spoke to the schools, Maltby discovered that lunch payment delinquencies totaled from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The schools were doing their best to manage, but it became clear, they could use some help.

"I’m not here to judge a parent for not paying (for school lunches)" Maltby said, "but a child does not need to suffer."

Knight added, "A lot of times parents simply forget (to pay)."

Maltby and her husband, Adam, a retired chief warrant officer and Army pilot, began by paying down the debts on their own schools, first $100 at Richmond Hill High School and then $800 at the middle school. But as it became apparent that some schools had higher debt than others (as much as $2,500 at the primary school), the Maltbys were going to have to get a little help from their friends.

She didn’t have to look any further than to the group of approximately 300 who share her love of running. When she’s not taking care of her two children, Maltby is a volunteer coach and trainer for two local running groups: the Savannah chapter of MRTT, which stands for Moms Run This Town, and SARC, Swamp Ass Running Cooperative.

It wasn’t long before, Maltby said, "The community got involved and we knocked out the (initial) debt." Donations came in from the above groups, as well as Savannah Striders, Coastal Triathlon Club, and Team RWB (Red, White and Blue), made up of veterans.

More than $800 was raised initially from a yard sale, and about $6,000 has been collected since last year and deposited into a "Pay it Forward Account" administered by Knight and the Bryan County Schools Nutrition Central Office.

This fund impacts Bryan County’s 9,000 students, Knight said. Last year, those eligible for reduced-cost meals paid 25 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. This year, it is free, thanks in part to the Pay it Forward donations.

Knight said the schools also do their best today to let parents know if they have a delinquent account. Once a week schools send out charge notices to parents.

"Within the last year we had very few cases of having to give a reduced meal," Knight said. "We never take a tray away from the student."

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