One day over dinner, Tony Casanova and his family were having their usual conversation about the day’s events when his daughter mentioned that a friend didn’t sit with her at lunch.
The reason, it turned out, was that the friend “got cheese and crackers” that day – a makeshift meal served to students who don’t have enough money on their school accounts to cover a regular hot lunch.
“This reminded me of when I was growing up as a child,” says Casanova, who lives with his wife and two kids in Commerce Township. “I grew up with a single mother, and there were times when my mom had to make choices like tires for the car or lunch.”
Not being able to pay for lunch carried a stigma, he remembers, and hearing about it happening to children at his kids’ elementary school brought back that sting. In that moment, he knew he had to do something.
“I went and talked to the principal of the school and said, ‘How many times does this actually happen? Is it only this little girl or is it other kids?’ He informed me at that time that it was fairly common,” Casanova says. “I said, ‘Can I start a lunch account and whenever a kid goes through the line, if they can’t pay for their lunch, can you just charge it to me?'”
And that’s how the Invisible Dad Program was born.
Quietly looking out
Initially covering kids at Keith Elementary School in West Bloomfield, the program has since gained PTA support and is now implemented at all buildings in Walled Lake Consolidated Schools.
“It’s like a dad that stands invisibly in line and he just watches. This kid can’t pay, so just charge it to me. The kid never finds out about it,” Casanova explains.
The privacy aspect is key, since many schools currently have procedures that inadvertently make kids stand out for their inability to pay.
“Every district has a different way to deal with it,” he says. “In Rhode Island, they stamp the kids (with a stamp that says) ‘I need lunch money.’ In some places they make the kids pick up trays in exchange for the lunch.”
But with Invisible Dad, kids aren’t even aware their account was short; they move through the line like everyone else. Though their parents get an email notifying them that the program covered the child’s lunch, there’s no need to repay.
“It says ‘this is not a loan, you don’t have to pay it back. But whenever you can, get the account back up to good standing.’ And that’s that,” Casanova says.
Helping in hard times
“If it happened in front of their friends, they get stigmatized as being poor,” he says. “This is not really a kid’s problem. This is an adult problem.”
The Invisible Dad Program benefits children who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunches but whose parents may fall on hard times on occasion throughout the year.
“The kids that this actually covers is the kids whose dad had a successful business last month and this month it’s in the toilet – the kids whose parents are going through a divorce and last week he was with dad and this week he’s with mom and nobody put money in the lunch account,” Casanova explains. “We’re really talking about a small percentage of kids but still quite a few kids, especially across the district.”
Knowing he put an end to the embarrassment kids faced in his school district was gratifying at first, but Casanova – who owns a restaurant cleaning business – can only think of the kids in other communities who still find themselves treated differently in the lunch line because of a lack of funds.
“What I really realize now is the need nationwide for this kind of thing,” he says. “In my opinion, just like when the school gets funding for computers or teachers, (lunches) should just be put into the numbers of it.”
Until then, the way it works in Walled Lake Consolidated Schools – where the individual school PTAs each raise about $2,500 per year to fund the Invisible Dad accounts – is a model that could work in other districts, too.
And for parents who feel compelled to help, this type of program is more sustainable than randomly paying off the “lunch debt” at a school, he says.
“That’s sweet and a nice thing to do, but the minute that they pay off the debt, what they leave behind is new debt,” Casanova says. Instead, he says, talk to your principal, too.
In the Walled Lake, “it was a lack of awareness” rather than a lack of concern.
“Nobody wants kids to go to school and not get lunch. You’ll immediately have a trillion people stand up and open checkbooks. People aren’t bad,” he says. “It takes a little bit of organization.”
The spirit of giving is strong in the Casanova family. The local dad often volunteers his cleaning services and they take part in other community service – along with their kids, now 11 and 13.
“It’s something that we base a lot of value around in our family,” he says. “Not only just working and trying to get ahead and do what you do, but realizing there are people who need help out there, too.”
Though people often ask him about starting a nonprofit for Invisible Dad, that’s not part of Casanova’s plan.
“This isn’t about tax breaks,” he says. “I still send money to the program and to the schools, and I send it anonymously. It’s something that you do just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not a brand. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of thinking.”
How to become an ‘invisible’ parent
Here’s how you can support or create a similar program at your kids’ school.
- Take the ‘Invisible Dad Challenge.’ On Wednesdays, consider skipping lunch and instead “stand with a kid that didn’t get lunch today,” Tony Casanova says. “Take that money that you were going to spend on Wednesday and send it to a school. You should feel great about that and you should lose weight, too.”
- Start now. Set up a meeting with the principal of your child’s school.
- Get the facts. Find out how many kids deal with low balances for their school lunches and how the school handles it.
- Pay it forward. Set up a new, anonymous lunch account at the school and keep it funded; consider asking other parents for help. Instruct school staff to charge this account as needed, without telling the student.
- Take the next step. If things go smoothly, talk to your school’s PTA about funding the program moving forward. “As soon as people hear about it, they’ll all want to do it,” Casanova says.