Anonymous $18,000 donation erases meal debt for nearly 2,000 Edmonds School District students

Hazelwood Elementary School students play during recess. The anonymous donor initially offered to donate to the school, before deciding to pay off lunch debt across the entire Edmonds School District.

An anonymous donation made to the Edmonds School District will be used to clear the meal debt for almost 2,000 students.

Last week, the district received a check for $18,000 — roughly the amount of the debt across the district accumulated by unpaid school meals. As of Dec. 17, students with meal debt — which ranges in the district from 50 cents to $100 per student — will be wiped out entering the new year, said Food Services Director Megan de Vries.

“It’s going to give everyone a fresh start in the new year,” de Vries said. “They’re going to start back at school in January with a zero negative so families don’t have to be burdened.”

The donation came after a man, who wished to remain anonymous, approached Hazelwood Elementary School Principal Norma Lee about wanting to make a donation to the elementary school, where his children attended. Initially, the donor offered to pay the meal debt for the students at the elementary school, which amounted between $400 to $600.

However, the donor said that wasn’t a large-enough contribution so he decided to take his offer to the district level, where he offered to pay off meal debt for all Edmonds district students. Though donations to help reduce student meal debt are not uncommon, the district has never received a donation of this size, de Vries said. With the holiday season right around the corner, de Vries said most of her focus this time of year is on working with families to reduce their student’s debt.

“A lot of conversations are about the needs of families,” she said. “So, to have a conversation where somebody’s calling to inquire about our (the district’s) needs, I was really blown away.”

De Vries said the district is committed to ensuring all students are fed during the school day, regardless of whether students have funds to purchase a meal. The district – through the Foundation for Edmonds School District’s Nourishing Network – also supplies meals to students who may not have access to food over the weekend, she added.

“In Edmonds, we make sure all of our kiddos are eating a meal,” she said.

Edmonds is part of the National School Lunch Program — a federally-assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. The program provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. However, it only applies to students who qualify for free or reduced meals.

In 2018, the Washington state Legislature passed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights’ Act — a measure sponsored by State Rep. Strom Peterson of Edmonds (D-21st District), which requires schools to provide a hot meal to all students who request one, regardless of their ability to pay.

Prior to that, the district was already taking steps to ensure all students are fed at school by piloting unlimited meal charges. That resulted in a $117,000 debt during the 2017-18 school year. In 2018-19, the debt was cut in half. The district’s efforts to improve lines of communication with families are responsible for the recent decline in meal debt, de Vries explained.

“On the trajectory we’re on, my hope is that this year — with this donation — we are definitely going to end with less debt,” she said.

According to a report from district staff presented to the Edmonds School Board at its Dec. 10 business meeting, student meal debt was at $17,327 for 1,749 students. The remaining balance from the $18,000 donation will be saved to cover any future meal debt for students receiving free and reduced meals, de Vries said.

To further reduce meal debt, the district implemented a $15 charge limit for high school students’ meal accounts. Then, in June 2019, the Edmonds School District Board of Directors approved a proposal to cap all meal accounts in the district at $15 to keep the negative student meal account balances manageable for families, so they are not hit with large debt. When an account reaches the $15 limit, the district works with families to help bring debt down.

According to the Dec. 10 report, most of the district’s meal debt is currently at the elementary school level. De Vries said that’s because it is usually more difficult to connect with families with elementary school students to find a solution.

Families who qualify for free and reduced lunch are encouraged to sign up for that program, and can do so anytime by visiting the district’s website or picking up an application in any school’s front office. Affordable meals are not the only incentive for signing up, de Vries said. Students who receive free and reduced meals might also be eligible to receive discounted tuition for enrichment programs, like Running Start.

While paying off student meal debt will help students, Hazelwood Principal Lee said the donation has also been an inspiration for the school’s staff.

“We’re about kindness,” she said. “Kindness ripples out and this is an example of someone doing something good.”

To learn more about student meals, apply for free and reduced meals or make future donations to reduce student meal debt, visit the Food and Nutrition Services page on the district’s website.

–Story and photo by Cody Sexton

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