Lillia Erhardt, a Grant Watts Elementary student, establishes fund to help classmates in need buy lunches

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Lillia Erhardt, center, enjoys lunch with a group of her friends. Erhardt has donated $100 to Grant Watts Elementary School after recycling cans and bottles.A Scappoose elementary school student started a special fund this school year to help classmates and fellow students pay for school lunches.

Grant Watts Elementary School second-grader, Lillia Erhardt, helped set up a school lunch fund program with the help of her mom, Deanna Erhardt. Money in the fund is used to help students purchase food when they don't have sufficient cash in their lunch accounts to cover the cost of a meal.

The program, which was dubbed "Lillia's Lunches," allows students to purchase food to eat in the cafeteria even when a student has overdrawn his or her school lunch account, has forgotten food, or simply can't pay for a meal.

As many as 27.7 percent of Grant Watts students qualify for a free or reduced lunch, according to state data for the current school year.

Deanna helped Lillia come up with the idea for the lunch fund last year. When Lillia was in kindergarten, Deanna noticed that even when she and her husband packed extra food and snacks for their daughter, she would come home with an empty lunchbox. Eventually they realized that she wasn't eating it all herself, but was sharing her food with other students and classmates.

Lillia, who is also a competitor in the National American Miss pageants, started fundraising to help pay for various pageant items by recycling cans and bottles to earn cash. One day, Deanna noticed Lillia had collected enough money to pay for her personal items and still had funds left over. She considered ways to use the money to give back.

"At that time she was eight, you know, so we're thinking, what can [she] do when [she's] eight? So we started brainstorming things she could do on an ongoing basis," Deanna said. "She could contribute her can and bottle money on an ongoing basis and continue to give back as well."

The pair began discussing the idea with Grant Watts Elementary Principal Jen Stearns, and in January, Lillia donated $100 to the school for the lunch fund program.

"The general agreement was that, if a teacher or an aide for the day sees that a child is needing a lunch, or maybe can't get lunch because their account is overdrawn, or they've forgotten it, rather than having them sit and watch their friends eat lunch, they can grab money for that account and pay for lunch," Deanna explained.

While Grant Watts has always had programs in place to ensure students get a nutritious meal at school, Stearns explained that the lunch fund provides another opportunity for assistance.

Stearns said children at the school don't know about the fund directly, but staff within the building are always aware of students' needs and do what they can to make sure students are fed at mealtimes.

"Our District ensures that every child receives lunch. I partner with office staff regarding families in need of financial assistance with mealtime," Stearns stated in an email to the Spotlight. "If we have a family with a negative balance or if a need is presented to us, we make the collaborative decision to support

that need with this donation fund."

Deanna said she and Lillia have been have been talking about possibly expanding the lunch fund program to other schools in the district, after seeing how the program works at Grant Watts this year.

Lillia said she enjoys giving back to her school and other students. She also sees the importance of having food to eat at school.

"I think it's important so you can be stronger and not be starving until you get home," Lillia said.

While Stearns wouldn't disclose how many students have been served through the fund, at $2.50 per lunch, the $100 donation could help pay for up to 40 students.

"The generosity of others has allowed us to provide anonymity and discreetness when our Grant Watts families have tough times. All families have moments where assistance is needed. We understand that, and this fund affords us the opportunity to meet their needs," Stearns said.

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