Among public schools, families are still expected to pay for school lunches with the option to bring lunch from home. Some parents will forget to give their child the money to pay for lunch while others simply can’t afford lunch on a daily basis. When a student can’t pay for lunch, they can still eat on most occasions, but it goes into a “tab” that eventually has to be paid. Some schools will simply not let students with a negative account eat lunch served at schools.

Examples of students that felt embarrassed include stories from Bedford, Kentucky and Dowagiac, Michigan, where students had lunch thrown into the garbage in front of them and other students for owing as little as 30 cents, and no more than $5. It’s been found that around the United States, lunch debt for schools can range from as little as $2 to as much as $4.7 million.

Because of the growing concern of students forced to not eat lunch because of these negative accounts, groups have come together to pay off the lunch debt for students, helping both the students and families, as well as the school districts. One group in North Dakota helped organize motorcycle rides as a way of paying off $8,000 in debt with Bismarck Public Schools.

The group consists of Michelle Wagner (Director of Child Nutrition at BPS), Steve Pletan (Owner of Action Motor Sports) and Dave Allan (KSSS radio host). The group met every other Thursday in what they called a Ride and Dine event, and for $10 people could get a 30 minute ride on a motorcycle and a meal. It ended up being a big hit, and sponsors also throwing in money were able to erase the student lunch debt.

Allan said “We thought, that’s a great idea, why don’t we do something like that because these kids, it’s not their fault. They get to go to school, and the last thing they should have to worry about is having a hot lunch.” Allan also mentioned that the Ride and Dine event has been ongoing for years, with a new charity in mind with each event, including the Wounded Warrior Project.

The motorcycle used for the Ride and Dine was donated by Pletan and Action Motor Sports, giving people the chance to ride on an expensive new 2017 Indian Scout motorcycle. “It’s just a really good cause that it goes to,” Pletan said. “I think it’s a really big problem that most people don’t understand.”

Wagner has also been happy to help with the event that directly affects the students she encounters on a daily basis. “I’m very, very grateful for the money that we’re getting,” she said. “We have a new policy in place and we’re just kind of going through those steps and we’re working on paying off that debt.” The North Dakota group isn’t the only one looking to eliminate local student lunch debt, either.

Jeffrey Lew started a crowdfunding page to eliminate lunch debt in Washington.
Jeffrey Lew started a crowdfunding page to eliminate lunch debt in Washington.

Jeffrey Lew of Seattle, Washington discovered the problem while reading online, and found that the school district of his children owed $97.10 in lunch debt. Lew paid the district’s debt and said “I thought, why not help out the whole Seattle Public Schools district? It took off from there.” Lew created an online crowdsourcing fundraiser to help the schools, setting a goal of $50,000.

The Seattle Public Schools District had just over $20,000 in debt, and Lew wanted to set the bar even higher to help other schools in his home state. This included the school districts in nearby Spokane, Renton, Tacoma and more. The crowdfunding took off and raised more than six figures, helping to completely eliminate the student lunch debt in multiple districts.

“This issue is important to me because I really feel passionate about helping students just do their best in school and not have to worry about having food to eat,” Lew said. “I believe we should have universal lunches. We give inmates three meals a day, and they’ve been convicted of crimes against our community. We force our students to stay in school yet lunches are not automatically provided for them.”

Lew added “These are innocent little children that should only worry about studying and doing their best, not worrying if they will go hungry the rest of their school day because they don’t have the funds to pay for a decent lunch.” Lew set his next goal at erasing debt in the entire state of Washington and has inspired others to set a similar goal in their home states until all of the US student lunch debt has been eliminated.