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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY
By Erica Chayes Wida

Hailey and Hannah Hager are on a mission to help a North Carolina school district pay down over $41,000 worth of lunch money debt — one cup of lemonade at a time.

In the fall of last year, Erin Hager (the girls' mother) bought an old lemonade stand for her daughters and fixed it up. The Hagers' intention was never to sell lemonade for a profit. One of the stand's first good deeds? To raise money for a local hospice center that helped the sisters' grandfather. As a person who believes in giving back, Erin said that performing random acts of kindness has always been an integral part of her family.

Hailey, 13, and Hannah, 11, were researching children's homes in communities neighboring their hometown of Lexington, North Carolina, to donate to, when that they learned from their principal that families in their own school's neighborhood were struggling to afford lunch every day.

Hailey, left, and her sister Hannah make and sell lemonade to pay off their school's debt.Erin Hager

"The school called and said they owed a significant amount of cafeteria debt and if anyone could help that'd be great," Erin told TODAY Food. "We had been trying to find out a need and fill it. However, it got put on hold when we realized there was a real significant need right here."

Emily Lipe, superintendent of Davidson County Schools, which includes 36 schools total, told TODAY that the hefty "School Nutrition meal debt" is money the district owes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for reimbursable meals they've served to students who don't have money to buy lunch. While Lipe's district participates in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federal initiative that provides free breakfast and 40-cent lunches to children whose families qualify, much of the debt is owed by parents who never applied for NSLP for the current school year, or by those who didn't send in 40 cents.

"I remember being begged [by school officials] at the beginning of the year to please fill out free and reduced lunch [forms], even if you think you might not qualify," said Erin, who makes Hailey and Hannah's lunches due to their food allergies. "To not fill out the form, for whatever reason, is just punishing your child."

The Hagers also want Hailey and Hannah's Helping Hands lemonade stand, which has a public Facebook page, to create awareness around "lunch shaming," a national issue in which children who owe their school cafeterias money experience consequences that make their parents' financial hardships obvious to peers. The Associated Press reported the rules vary from district to district — repercussions for unpaid debts range from not allowing students to choose a hot meal or serving an off-menu option. A district in Warwick, Rhode Island, for example, served only cold cheese sandwiches to kids who didn't have enough money. Other schools may choose to ban students from special activities like dances or field trips, or may even withhold privileges like participating in graduation ceremonies.

Hailey and Hannah get ready to spend their weekend selling lemonade in bandanas and sunglasses. It's hard work but it's worth it.

As far as Erin knows, "the walk of shame," as she referred to it, doesn't occur in her daughters' schools, which Lipe confirmed.

"Lunch shaming is not an issue in our school district. We have taken steps to ensure that no student is ostracized due to the lack of breakfast or lunch funds," Lipe said.

During the the 2017-18 school year, Lipe said the Davidson school board eliminated the alternate meal provision to ensure all students were able to receive the same meal choices — hot or cold — whether or not they could pay for it. The only stipulation is that students with outstanding IOU's cannot purchase extra items like ice cream, cookies or chips.

If parents do not (or cannot) reimburse the school, the district is responsible for paying the USDA the full amount owed. Since the federal government cannot provide this type of assistance, schools are forced to adjust their budgets — which may likely affect educational initiatives or staff resources — to pay the debt.

That's where Hailey and Hannah come in.

The sisters hosted their first lemonade stand on Saturday, May 18, and sold lemonade for a $1 per cup. On the following afternoon, they sold lunch-and-lemonade combos for $5 a pop and worked quickly to serve patrons, including a large group of motorcyclists who stopped by.

During their first weekend, Hailey and Hannah raised $460, which they will donate to Hannah's school, Southwood Elementary. Next, they will work to pay off Central Davidson Middle's debt, then move onto their town's high school and then spread their efforts one by one to the remaining 33 schools in the district.

"The goal is to raise as far as they can go to pay off the full [$41,000] debt. The possibility is endless," Erin said, adding, "Having so much support has been phenomenal. It's very emotional."

By the Tuesday after Memorial Day, the sisters had already raised enough money to pay off the debts owed to Hannah's school.

Lipe said, "We are incredibly proud of these girls for this tremendous show of selflessness, compassion, and willingness to be empathetic toward their peers."