More than $80,000 dollars in donated lunch money has rolled into an online fundraising campaign for the St. Paul school district, and the fundraiser's organizer hopes to turn it into a self-sustaining nonprofit to take a bite out of a problem that plagues school districts across Minnesota.
The Philando Feeds the Children campaign memorializes Philando Castile, a cafeteria worker at the district's J.J. Hill Montessori school who was killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop.
"We have to have this initial really big push for [the fundraiser] to get enough money to be able to make some money," Pam Fergus said.
The St. Paul school district said it typically builds up about $60,000 in lunch debt each year.
The debt accumulates when students can't pay for their meals. A federal program offers free and reduced-price meals to families who qualify, but some families who earn a little bit too much still can't afford lunch. Other families who do qualify may not sign up. They may be unaware or unwilling to share personal information.
Fergus said she'd like to raise enough to extend the donations outside St. Paul.
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"The end game is that this keeps going until people don't even remember who Philando Castile is or until I'm dead and gone, whichever comes first," she said.
The Minneapolis school district had almost $57,000 in lunch debt as of early October. In the Osseo school district, unpaid balances have reached about $46,000.
Last year social media campaigns in Minneapolis and St. Paul raised thousands of dollars to pay off lunch debt. A donor paid off balances at Maple Grove high school in the Osseo district.
So far this year, Minneapolis and Osseo said they've had some individual inquiries about donations. A local church has an ongoing commitment to donate at least $1,500 a month to help cover Osseo lunch debt. But the costs keep building as well.