Money

This writer's tweet raised over $100,000 to wipe out students' school lunch debts

Ashley C. Ford poses for a photo in New York. Ford felt driven to act by a sad fact of life in the nation’s school cafeterias: Kids with unpaid lunch accounts are often embarrassed with a substitute meal of a cold cheese sandwich and a carton of milk.
Mary Altaffer | AP
Ashley C. Ford poses for a photo in New York. Ford felt driven to act by a sad fact of life in the nation’s school cafeterias: Kids with unpaid lunch accounts are often embarrassed with a substitute meal of a cold cheese sandwich and a carton of milk.

With a single tweet, New York City-based writer Ashley C. Ford sparked a movement that's raised thousands of dollars towards paying off student lunch debts across the country.

Students that can't afford cafeteria lunches have the option to receive a meal at no charge — often a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk — and the cost is carried by the school district. Communities are rallying en masse to help pay off that debt.

Since these modest meals are sometimes distributed from a separate line, it can make a student's financial distress obvious to classmates. Ford herself received substitute lunches, and wanted to make a wider audience aware of the opportunity to help. The tweet resonated with her 66,000 (now 68,600) followers.

Kristina Arwood of Evansville, Indiana, was one of those followers inspired by Ford's words. She launched a campaign that so far has raised nearly $24,000 to pay lunch debts in her region.

"It really hit home for me. I grew up on free and reduced-price lunches, but even that 40 cents was hard to get together with four kids," Arwood told the Associated Press. "There were times I wouldn't eat because I didn't have money and didn't want to be labeled as the poor kid."

Arwood is just one of hundreds of people who've sprung to action.

File photo, students fill their lunch trays at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y., where all meals are now free under the federal Community Eligibility Provision.
Mary Esch | AP
File photo, students fill their lunch trays at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y., where all meals are now free under the federal Community Eligibility Provision.

In Bellevue, Washington, Ford's tweet moved Beau Gunderson.

"I saw a tweet by Ashley C. Ford on Twitter and thought, 'That is something I could do,'" he told the local news network.

Gunderson paid off all late accounts for students at the middle school and high school that he attended — $1,678 in total. His actions inspired the Bellevue community to pay off the $600 of debt at the district elementary school.

In Topeka, Kansas, people came together to erase more than $6,300 in unpaid meal charges. "We are so fortunate to have people in our community who are willing and able to help students and families," said Topeka Unified School District communications director Misty Kruger.

HelpMplsKids, an online fundraiser in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collected around $100,000 to help pay off lunch debt at city schools. (According to the campaign, there is still more fundraising to do.)

Ford's tweet called attention to a widespread issue. When the School Nutrition Association surveyed 1,000 school meal programs in 2016, they found that roughly three-quarters of school districts had unpaid student meal debt. The median debt per district was $2,000, while some districts had as much as $4.7 million in debt.

This is not the first time that Ford has wielded her social media savvy for good. In 2014, she launched a fundraising campaign for the public library in Ferguson, Missouri. Her efforts helped raise $450,000 in donations.

Ford hopes the awareness she's raised about school meal debt might encourage people to consider other ways of lending a hand.

"It was just one idea," she told the AP. "Another school might need help with uniforms or tutoring. The point was to do something that helps people in your community."