Five local women are planning a fundraising event to help make sure students in Grand Forks Public Schools get a hot lunch, rather than a sandwich, if they want it.

The "Chair Affair" event planned for Sept. 13 will feature about 20 chairs decorated by artists and other "creators," the project's leader Becky Ronkowski said. The chairs will be auctioned to raise money for the Grand Forks Public Schools' Child Nutrition Program, she said.

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The free event begins with a 5:30 p.m. social, and the auction begins at 6 p.m. at the Gorecki Alumni Center at UND. Proceeds will go into an account that's earmarked for the lunch program and managed by the Grand Forks Foundation for Education.

Under school district policy, students whose lunch accounts reach a certain negative balance receive a soy butter sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk, instead of a hot meal.

The use of chairs as an auction item is in keeping with the event's theme, "For a seat to eat," a call to ensure "that every child has a seat at the table," said Emilia Hodgson, the foundation's executive director.

"There's such a need right now in this community," said Ronkowski, a retired Grand Forks public school teacher. "People are excited about this work. What I like most is, people coming together to help each other."

"Kids need to eat in order to learn," she said.

In addition to Ronkowski and Hodgson, the event organizers also include Nikki Fournier, Meggen Sande and Becca Bahnmiller, all of Grand Forks.

In the spring, they learned that some children whose account balances were too far in the red were not eating lunch, Ronkowski said.

Stigma

"(Some students in Grand Forks), even if offered the sandwich, wouldn't accept it, saying they weren't hungry," she said.

The stigma of eating a soy butter sandwich, when others had regular meals, kept them from accepting it, she said.

Some high school students with insufficient lunch accounts "go to the library or their cars or sit on the steps" rather than go through the lunch line, Hodgson said.

"We want to reach those kids," she said.

Hodgson said she and other district employees have been working "to close the communication gap" between lunchroom attendants and social workers to discreetly provide assistance to students whose lunch accounts are in the red.

Various factors may be contributing to the problem, Ronkowski said.

Parents may have just forgotten to make deposits or are facing financial troubles, she said.

"No matter what the reason, we just want to be able to help," she said.

The cost for a school lunch, per child, is $2.20 in elementary school and $2.45 in middle and high school, said Emily Karel, director of the child nutrition program for Grand Forks Public Schools.

In the elementary schools, soy butter sandwiches are offered every day, as one of four lunch options, Karel said.

Last school year, "as of May 23, we had served, by choice, 34,779 soy butter sandwich meals," she said.

During the 2017-18 school year, 71 "non-choice" soy butter meals were served to students whose accounts had reached the "charging threshold," Karel said.

However, a donation received midyear from the Foundation for Education "allowed the student to continue to have one or more choices offered, and we charged the (foundation) for those meals as opposed to the student," Karel said.

Unique chairs

For the Sept. 13 event, about 20 artists and others who are involved in the project are providing the chairs, which they bought or built and are decorating as they wish, Ronkowski said.

There are no limits to what they can create, she said.

"The rules for the chairs are: there are no rules," she said.

Each creator has been asked to list their name, the name the chair and his or her favorite meal in school on a card that'll be displayed with it.

The live-auction event, which includes hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar, will feature Dave Berger as master of ceremonies and Frank Matejcek as auctioneer, Ronkowski said.

"If you get outbid, or you just want to support this effort, donations of any size will be accepted," Hodgson said. "Every dollar counts when it comes to something like this."

The event is sponsored by Riverside Dental, Valley Oral Facial Surgery, and Becky and Keith Ronkowski.

The Gorecki Alumni Center is at 3501 University Ave.

For more information, go online to www.gfchairaffair.com.