LYNNWOOD — This week, Megan de Vries got a phone call about an anonymous family wanting to cover the debt accumulated by students buying lunch at Hazelwood Elementary School.
It was $600.
Instead the anonymous donors wrote a check for $18,000, clearing student meal debt at every school in the district and giving more than 2,000 students a clean slate heading into 2020.
“To actually get the check in my hands and walk it up to our business services offices and get it directly into students’ accounts for meals they’ve already purchased is such a gift,” said de Vries, director of food and nutrition services for the Edmonds School District. “To have five figures on a check was a big deal.”
For some students, the meal debt was as low 50 cents. For others, it was nearly $100.
“These are kids,” de Vries said. “They incurred the debt, but it’s an adult responsibility to pay the bills.”
In Washington, the 2018 Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights prohibited schools from singling out students who can’t pay for lunch. The state law was authored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds.
The federal government covers the cost of meals for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. There are also students who can’t pay, but aren’t signed up for free or reduced-price meals. And some can afford to pay, but for whatever reason, don’t.
De Vries said the district works hard to remind families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches to apply every year. And they urge families who can pay to do so. Not everyone does. School districts end up absorbing the cost.
The Edmonds district stops charging high school students after they incur a $15 debt.
After all, hungry students can’t learn, de Vries said.
“Our job is to feed kiddos,” de Vries said. “In order to do that, debt gets incurred. You can’t feed everyone and expect all the costs to be covered.”
Even before the Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights, the Edmonds School District piloted a program that fed every student the same meal regardless of debt. That program reversed a previous policy that stopped students with debt from getting meals.
In 2017-18, the program’s first year, students owed a total of $117,000. The next year the number was below $70,000. This year, it’s on pace to be below $40,000.
The family responsible for the donation this week wishes to remain anonymous. They had children who attended Hazelwood Elementary.
Principal Norma Lee said it’s a testament to the sense of family at the school.
“That feeling makes people want to be here,” she said.