When students who aren’t enrolled in a free school meal program lack the money to pay for their food, what results is an accumulating lunch debt. It’s a problem facing many schools across the country. About 75% of districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association.
In Texas, one 14-year-old boy recognized the issue in his community and crowdfunded more than $10,000 to pay off the Austin Independent School District's debt.
“I was very surprised,” says Ben Hofer, an eighth-grader at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, about his fundraising success. “After being on a few news places and newspapers, it kind of just like took off.”
Hofer discovered the problem of school lunch debt after reading an article about “lunch shaming” — when schools embarrass students who aren’t able to afford their meals in order to get families to pay off their lunch debts. Hofer did some research into his own district, and while he found it didn’t engage in lunch shaming, he discovered Austin had a significant student lunch debt. It was a hurdle Hofer hadn’t thought of before, which made him feel some guilt.
“I just I always thought of lunches just like you go to lunch and eat,” he tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd. “But some kids might get lunch some days and not some other days, and it's very stressful, and they might not get a good meal, because they don't want to go over their parents budget, and then they won't do well in academics or sports.
“I think it's a bigger issue than some might think, and it's also in like pretty much every school district that I know of.”
Hofer hopes people around the country in other school districts will take his lead and start their own fundraisers. As far as his own efforts go, he says he wants to make the fundraiser annual for the next few years.
“I'm very fortunate and get to eat lunch every day,” says Hofer. “I feel like if you don't, you should get help.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article mentioned the case of a New Hampshire cafeteria worker who gave a student a free meal who she said couldn't afford lunch. It is now unclear whether the worker was lying.
This segment aired on May 24, 2019.
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