The Seattle parent’s campaign has raised $25,000 in nine days to pay off school-lunch debt in the city’s public schools. “I just want to give back to my former school district,” said the 33-year-old Ingraham High graduate.
Seattle students who have school-meal debts aren’t turned away at mealtimes. For breakfast, they get graham crackers, fruit and milk. Lunch is fruit, vegetables and milk.
They don’t have to clean lunch tables, like some students do in other states, one of the “lunch shaming” practices that have sparked national outrage. Still, they stand out, and easily could feel ashamed or embarrassed.
Seattle parent Jeff Lew wanted to make sure that no student would feel singled out or be bullied because of meal debt at his son’s elementary school, where students owed $97.10. So last week, he created a GoFundMe campaign to cover that amount.
After he quickly raised that, he set his sights on the roughly $21,000 owed in the district’s 99 schools throughout the city.
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Within a week, the campaign reached, and then surpassed, that goal. On Thursday, 478 donors had donated $25,000.
“I just want to give back to my former school district,” said the 33-year-old Ingraham High graduate. “It’s the least I could do, to create the campaign, and it just took off. I’m blown away.”
Several other area districts also have had their student-meal debts paid by campaigns or individual donors. Lew’s effort, for example, inspired a friend to create a similar campaign in Everett, where the total student-lunch debt is about $5,000. And in Marysville, a couple last week paid off the $5,495 debt for the district’s 10 elementary schools.
In Seattle, about 3,700 students now owe the $21,468 for school meals. The majority are families who don’t qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program, said district spokesman Luke Duecy. Breakfast and lunch prices range from $2 to $3.25.
Once a student owes $15 or more, schools have the option of providing the modified meals, although some just give the full meal anyway.
“Our policy is kids don’t go without a breakfast or lunch if they don’t have money at the time,” Duecy said. “We feed them. We never shame any child like other districts might do.”
In the past, other Puget Sound school districts have been accused of lunch-shaming. In 2014, a Kent middle-school student’s lunch was taken from him and thrown out because his lunch account was 26 cents short. The district later apologized. For two weeks in 2008, the Edmonds School District took away hot lunches from students who owed $10 or more before the district suspended the policy.
In Seattle, Lew wanted to make sure all students get an equal lunch after reading stories about more recent — and more extreme — examples of lunch-shaming outside Washington.
“They denied them lunch, they even made the kids do some chores,” Lew said. “The other kids see that, and they could say ‘oh, so and so doesn’t have money again.’ ”
On Lew’s GoFundMe page, donors reported that they had felt embarrassed when they were in school, and weren’t able to afford the same food as classmates.
With the debt paid, Lew said, kids can now eat whatever their friends do.
“If they’re having tacos, you’re having a taco,” he said. “It’s not just fruit and milk when your friends are having chicken nuggets.”
The extra money will go into a fund that will cover future debts that students may rack up through the end of the school year.
In Marysville, Thomas and Christy Lee, who are both retired from Boeing, originally planned to pay just the debt at Kellogg Marsh Elementary, where their son attended school. The couple made a New Year’s resolution to do something for students in Marysville, where they said their son, now a chef in Seattle, received a great education. They got the idea to pay off the debt after hearing stories from friends who work in schools, and told them about students who couldn’t pay for lunches and would only get a cold cheese sandwich.
“You see kids who are so embarrassed they won’t even eat the lunch, I thought ‘that’s just so tough,’ ” Thomas Lee said.
When they were at the district office, they asked what it would cost to cover the debt at all the district’s elementary schools. At first, they said they would think about paying all of it, but “my wife and I knew we were going to do it anyhow,” Thomas Lee said. “We came home, had a cup of coffee, then called and said yes, we would pay off the debt.”
Later that day, Thomas Lee looked at a news app on his phone, and saw that the lead story was about Lew trying to do the same thing.
“I couldn’t believe the coincidence,” he said. “I’m thinking, man, maybe we’ve started something here.”
The Lees didn’t stop at Marysville. Their grandsons go to Kent Prairie Elementary in Arlington, so on Monday, they called the school and asked the amount of that school’s debt, which was $237.38.
“We said ‘OK, we’ll see you in the morning,’ ” Lee said.
The next day, Christy Lee went to Arlington — Thomas Lee had a dialysis appointment — and paid off that debt, too.