For families that don’t qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, paying for school lunches can be a struggle.
But there’s an effort to wipe away lunch debt in many of the state’s school districts.
As of Wednesday, the GoFundMe campaign “Erase Washington School Lunch Debt!” had raised nearly $17,500 toward its goal of $650,000.
Thurston County’s three largest public school systems — North Thurston, Olympia and Tumwater — are among the nearly 65 districts and private schools listed in the campaign.
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Total meal debt in the nearly 10,000-student Olympia School District is just under $21,000, according to district spokeswoman Susan Gifford. That amount includes debt generated by current students and anyone who graduated, transferred or dropped out during the past decade, she said.
“From time to time, the district receives a donation toward outstanding meal debt from an OSD (Olympia School District) staff member, parent or community member,” Gifford said.
Olympia students with negative account balances can purchase regular breakfast and lunch meals, but aren’t allowed to charge a la carte items, Gifford said.
With nearly 15,000 students, the Lacey-based North Thurston Public Schools has about $3,500 in outstanding lunch debt, according to district spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve.
“While nobody is denied lunch in our district, we have had many calls about people wanting to help and are looking at options,” she said.
Students with negative balances are given a courtesy meal of cereal, milk and access to the salad bar, Schrieve said.
The district is working with the North Thurston Education Foundation to help alleviate debt for students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program, and is in the process of establishing a Compassion Fund that would allow community members and businesses to donate to a specific account so that more students can have regular meals instead of a courtesy meal when they incur a negative balance, she said.
In the Tumwater district, a parent recently donated $590 to help reduce its outstanding lunch balance, according to district spokeswoman Laurie Wiedenmeyer. The current balance for the nearly 6,500-student district is almost $2,400, she said.
“Our practice is to contact families that are in a negative balance and work with them on a repayment schedule,” Wiedenmeyer said. “As a district, we work to be as flexible as possible in cases of financial hardship. The reality is, though, that in some cases, we don’t get paid.”
Nationally, 76 percent of school districts reported that their meal program had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2014-15 school year, which is the most recent year data is available, according to the School Nutrition Association.
The GoFundMe campaign is organized by Jeff Lew of Seattle, who helped raise nearly $100,000 to wipe out lunch debt in five school districts, including Tacoma. This time, he enlisted the help of another dad, Stephen Medawar, and the charity World Impact Network.
Lew and his fundraising team spent the summer calling districts across the state to find out how much was owed for meal debts. Some districts have no lunch debt, thanks to donations or district programs.
“It’s important to pay off these debts because we need to help each other and help one another in a time of need,” Lew said in a Seattle Times story. “Regardless of the reason for what these parents are going through, I want to give back. These are families I don’t know, these are kids I don’t know, but I want to fight for them.”
How to help
To donate, go to: www.gofundme.com/erase-washington-school-lunch-debt.