Student-lunch debts at 3 Champaign schools erased with crowdfunding

Student-lunch debts at 3 Champaign schools erased with crowdfunding

CHAMPAIGN — Knocking off more than $3,000 from Unit 4's remaining student-lunch-debt balance was as easy as 1-2-3 GoFundMe campaigns.

That's exactly how the summer effort to reduce the Champaign school district's $25,480 in unpaid lunch debt started: first as one campaign directed toward Carrie Busey Elementary School, then as two others for South Side and Barkstall elementaries. Todd Sweet, who started the first GoFundMe page, described his family as a seven-year Carrie Busey family, which prompted him to start crowdsourcing.

"Part of it was wanting to do something for the Carrie Busey community," he said. "I knew there was a lunch debt there, and it seemed like something we could fundraise for. This is a burden above and beyond for some families, so just having that balance wiped clean seemed doable."

It's not uncommon for districts to end the year with debt from unpaid student lunches, and that includes Champaign.

"Families forget to pay, or perhaps haven't signed up for free or reduced meals yet," Unit 4 spokeswoman Emily Schmit said. "We continue to feed kids, regardless of the debt."

What is less common is a community-backed erasure of a school's entire debt, which is what all three GoFundMe campaigns accomplished. In May, Carrie Busey's student debt totaled $821, South Side's was $593 and Barkstall's was $1,126.

All three campaigns exceeded their goals and gave extra money to the district.

— Carrie Busey donors raised $1,055, just more than the $1,000 goal.

— South Side donations pulled in $1,255, beating a $1,000 goal.

— Barkstall donations reached $1,359 with only seven donations, thanks to an anonymous donation of $1,100.

Martha Mills said she started the South Side fundraiser after seeing Sweet's page online. Then, another campaign popped up after that.

"Basically what happened was we were kind of copycats," she said. "I just kind of went off the (Carrie Busey) page, and I know that someone tried to do it at Barkstall after ours."

South Side Principal Bill Taylor said he was aware of similarly minded campaigns in other states, but not in Champaign.

"I've never seen that done before," he said. "I think they just wanted to pay it forward."

Schmit said the donations reduced the district's overall balance to $22,931.

Although each campaign was directed at a specific school, both Mills and Sweet said the students and families were the ones they wanted to help. Sweet said the campaigns raised awareness of an issue not always known.

"I think, based on a lot of feedback, that people didn't know this existed, that there were families with significant balances," he said.

The consequences of student-lunch debt, according to district policy, fall onto the families if it isn't addressed. Once the total surpasses $20, the district sends automated calls and emails to the family twice monthly. If left unpaid, the delinquent account rolls over into the next year. In a more severe scenario, the Illinois Department of Child and Family services could be called if the debt goes too high.

"If the family is struggling to make ends meet and they have this hanging over their head, it's overwhelming and adds more stress and anxiety," Mills said. "We really wanted to take that away."

It's possible some debt comes from students whose families weren't previously aware of or hadn't applied for free- or reduced-lunch programs. But even if a family later found out they were approved for free lunches, the district can't just ignore any previous debt accrual.

"The USDA doesn't allow us to wipe charges if students apply for meal benefits at a later date," Schmit said. "Charges incurred prior to the meal application being on file remain on the student's account."

The money that donors raised will first go to the debt of students who are currently eligible for free meals, according to Schmit. If there's remaining money, it will be funneled to the debt of students eligible for reduced meals. And, she added, if there's any money after that process, students who haven't applied for or were denied access to free and reduced lunches will have the money applied to their balances.

"I think it says a lot for our community that we pulled together to do this sort of thing to cover these debts," Mills said. "We realize the system is broken, and people shouldn't be punished for that failing on the system's part."

Mills said she hoped to see efforts like this continue, but not necessarily through various GoFundMe pages.

"I wouldn't want to overdo the GoFundMe in a way that would make people bitter," she said. "Ideally, we can get something going community-wide where it grows and starts to be self-maintained."

Sweet called the outcome "a pleasant surprise."

"I guess I had a hunch that it would be something people would rally behind, but I had no idea if we would reach our goal," he said. "In that sense, I was surprised with how quickly it happened and how much it raised."

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