5-year-old's cocoa stand helps pay off students' lunch debt

Suzanne Ciechalski contributed.

SAN DIEGO — After overhearing another child's mother say she was having a hard time paying for an after-school program, Katelynn Hardee, 5, spoke to her own mother about how she could help other students.

Katelyn set up a cocoa-and-cookies stand, and it turned into a success. She soon decided the money she made would be used to pay off the lunch debt of 123 students in her San Diego County school district.

"I don't want people to be hungry," Hardee told NBC San Diego, which did not say how much the bill was.

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Her selfless action was recognized recently with an award from administrators at her school, Breeze Hill Elementary, part of the Vista Unified School District in Vista, California.

"It is truly inspiring to see Katelynn's compassion and generous nature utilized to help those less fortunate," Jamie Phillips, director of child nutrition services for the 20,000-student district, told NBC San Diego.

The act of kindness comes amid national concern over how some districts are handling public school meal payments.

Over the summer, a school district in eastern Pennsylvania was criticized for sending letters to parents threatening to refer their children to foster care if they did not pay their lunch debts.

In October, a suburban Philadelphia school district proposed dealing with overdue lunch money by prohibiting indebted students from prom and other activities, and serving them tuna sandwiches.

Last month, a Minnesota school district apologized after cafeteria workers were captured on video throwing out the hot meals of students with lunch debts. Instead, they were offered cold meals.

According to the Vista Unified School District, breakfast and lunch combined can cost as much as $3.50 a day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and those whose debt exceeds $10 are offered an "alternative meal" of hummus, string cheese, chips, fruit or vegetable and milk.

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