CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — One local woman — and former Mrs. Richmond — is working to fight hunger in local schools by raising money to pay off families’ accumulated lunch debt.

Melissa Hetzler Burton is a Chesterfield mother herself and has witnessed first-hand how important it is for students to have access to a nutritional school lunch.

“If our kids cannot concentrate because they’re hungry, then how are they going to be in a fulfilling learning environment?” Burton asked.

According to No Kid Hungry Virginia, about 600,000 students across the state have relied on reduced-price school lunches.

“This is a basic, foundational need for life,” Burton said.

Families of school-aged children had some form of relief over the past few years during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, those benefits — like free school lunch waivers for example — expired this past summer.

Back in July, Virginia lawmakers expanded eligibility in an effort to reduce the burden on families still overwhelmed with rising inflation rates and those hit hardest by the pandemic’s inflicted economic hardships.

Burton has been in contact with officials from local schools who have shared growing concern over accumulated school lunch debt, which are sums of money students acquire throughout the academic year as they run out of funding in their lunch accounts.

“Seventy-six percent of schools in America have lunch debt that their students and parents have not paid or cannot pay,” Burton explained.

This statistic alarmed Burton, so she decided to employ her passion for community advocacy in order to raise funds for local schools to pay off those debts. She’s already raised enough money to aid one local school with around $2,000 worth of school lunch debt, but she isn’t stopping there.

“We can pick another school and maybe by some Christmas miracle we can get all 64 funded in the county,” Burton said.

With inflation rates hitting around 7.7%, Burton recognizes the struggle many families continue to face. She’s calling the community to action, encouraging those who can afford to do so, to donate to food banks and local organizations.

“We’re in this place of, our community needs to step up,” Burton said.

For information on how to apply for reduced-price lunch in the future for your Chesterfield County school student, visit Chesterfield Schools Food and Nutrition Services.

If you’re interested in learning more about former Mrs. Richmond, Melissa Hetzler Burton’s, past philanthropic work and her current community efforts in the fight against food insecurity, visit her on Facebook.