South Jersey became a lighting rod in 2019 for a conversation on school lunch debt when a policy from Cherry Hill Public Schools sparked local outrage. The Hayman family followed the news and felt for all involved in the situation.
Jeffrey Hayman said students were being unintentionally shamed, and the district was in a “bad situation” trying to follow state guidelines on school lunch debt. The Haymans’ outrage at the situation turned to recognition that they could do something to help.
With that, Hungry Minds was born. The nonprofit organization focuses on public school student lunch debt and food security issues. It operates in the belief that students can’t learn to their full potential when they’re hungry. Funded by the Hayman family, the nonprofit’s goal is to help families who do not qualify for government assistance but have food security issues.
Hayman said he and his wife, Hungry Minds co-founder Debbie Hayman, have long been involved in charities that help feed, clothe or educate people, so starting their own nonprofit felt like a natural extension of their efforts.
Their goal with Hungry Minds is not to retire current debt, though the organization is not opposed to doing that down the line. Instead, the hope is to prevent debt from building up in the first place. The majority of the funding comes from a grant from the family, and they’re prepared to fundraise for the organization as required.
Within the last year, the Haymans have approached six school districts throughout South Jersey offering to set up an account they would fund. Hayman said the fund would be entirely in the district’s hands and the nonprofit does not seek any information on students. It simply asks that the funds be allocated to help students pay for lunch.
In their meetings with local schools, the Haymans learned that students can fall through the cracks for any number of reasons. Parents may have recently lost a job, may be just above the income limit or may qualify for subsidized free or reduced lunch but have not submitted their paperwork on time.
The Haymans’ conversations with local districts proved largely constructive and candid, but they all turned the family’s offer down. Hayman said for privacy reasons, he won’t name which districts they’ve spoken with, but his impression is that the school systems are highly sensitive to potential bad publicity or public blame.
Finally, one school district with a discretionary account agreed to let the Haymans step in, and since then, the family has continued to replenish the account. Hayman said the motives are purely altruistic. As time goes on, family members are eager to establish themselves and inspire other local districts to work with them as well.
“We just want to try to expand the universe of districts and families we help,” Hayman said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way schools operate, with several local districts continuing to prepare and distribute lunches for students regardless of cost. But the Haymans’ work hasn’t stopped. They’ve partnered with the local group Moorestown Neighbors Helping Neighbors and were referred to families with school-age children for whom they purchase and deliver groceries and supplies.
While the fate of schooling in the fall remains to be seen, Hayman said the hope is to again approach the districts the family met with last year and see where they stand. He added that schools want to feed students and want to comply with state and federal law, and having a source of funding allows them to do both.
To learn more about Hungry Minds, visit http://hungrymindsnj.com.