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He helped wipe out school-meal debt in Tacoma and Seattle. Can he do it statewide?

Seattle resident Jeff Lew (left) and his wife, Sophia Inton-Lew, with singer John Legend. Jeff Lew has started a campaign to raise at least $600,000 to eliminate lunch debt in school districts across Washington state.
Seattle resident Jeff Lew (left) and his wife, Sophia Inton-Lew, with singer John Legend. Jeff Lew has started a campaign to raise at least $600,000 to eliminate lunch debt in school districts across Washington state. Courtesy

Jeff Lew has helped raise nearly $100,000 to wipe out the lunch debt in five Washington school districts, including Tacoma.

With the message that no child should have to go hungry or be shamed if their families can’t afford a school meal, his campaigns have netted donations from community members, businesses and even Grammy-winner John Legend.

Now, Lew is taking the campaign statewide. The Seattle parent hopes to raise at least $600,000, which is the estimated total amount of lunch debt in districts across Washington. The campaign launched Friday.

“It’s a big challenge, but I’m confident,” said Lew, who lives on Beacon Hill. “I know Seattle was already a big challenge, and that has had a lot of momentum. We thought ‘Hey, what is the next step.’”

Lew created a GoFundMe campaign in May to eliminate the about $21,000 owed by Seattle students for school meals. Seattle schools provide modified meals, like milk or vegetables, for students if they owe more than $15 in their school-meal account. In other states, stories of schools that “lunch shamed” students by making them clean tables or throw out their food when they couldn’t afford meals sparked national outrage.

Lew wanted to make sure that a student never felt singled out or bullied if they couldn’t afford lunch, so he first created a campaign for his son’s elementary school. Once that was paid off, he created a campaign for Seattle, then the Tacoma, Renton, Spokane and Clover Park districts.

His story went viral, appearing on CNN, NBC and NPR. The campaigns caught the eye of John Legend, who donated $5,000, and TopGolf CEO Erik Anderson, who donated $12,000 in total for four campaigns.

Lew and his fund-raising team spent the summer calling districts across the state to find out how much was owed for meal debts.

They were pleased to hear that in some districts, there is no lunch debt, thanks to donations or district programs. Lew said he hopes they’ll hear that from more districts in the future.

“It’s important to pay off these debts because we need to help each other and help one another in a time of need,” Lew said. “Regardless of the reason for what these parents are going through, I want to give back. These are families I don’t know, these are kids I don’t know, but I want to fight for them.”

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