Matt Driscoll

When it comes to school-lunch debt in Tacoma, we’ve got to do better than GoFundMe’s

Allison Bishins was prepared for a large number, but the one she received still caught her off guard.

Bishins’ daughter, a third grader, attends Jefferson Elementary in Tacoma. With the school year winding down, Bishins and her husband, Spencer, wanted to know how much lunch debt had been accrued by students at the school throughout the year. They thought they might be able to help.

Working with the Tacoma school district, the Bishins family soon learned that, at Jefferson, which in 2017 had just under 300 students, more than $2,000 — and counting — was owed at the school.

Districtwide, the school-lunch debt exceeded $160,000.

“The debt is enormous,” a slightly flabbergasted Bishins told The News Tribune. “It seems like an unnecessary burden, especially for low-income households in our district.”

It certainly does.

While the issue of school lunch debt has increasingly made headlines across the country — whether it’s a yogurt company paying off school debt in Idaho, or a 9-year-old in California saving his allowance to pay off his third-grade class’s debt — we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become numb or complacent to the underlying societal failure this debt represents.

In Tacoma, school lunch debt follows students and families from school year to school year, and while the district “prefers not to” send families to collection, according to Tacoma Public Schools Strategic Planning and Policy Manager Alicia Lawver, it does have the right to.

Thankfully, even with such a large amount of school lunch debt at their daughter’s school, the Bishins were not deterred. On Wednesday, the family launched a GoFundMe effort, aiming to raise enough money to erase Jefferson’s school lunch debt. As of this writing, the effort had raised more than $1,900, coming from “a lot of places,” including individual donors and businesses, Bishins said.

In other words, it’s well on its way.

That’s nice, but it doesn’t make the necessity of such efforts right.

According to Bishins, she hopes the GoFundMe drive succeeds in covering the school lunch debt at Jefferson and plans to use any additional funds to help cover the districtwide total.

Equally important, Bishins hopes the effort will help to “drastically change the conversation for next year,” she says, both in the way the community responds to the problem and the larger issues it helps highlight.

For starters, Bishins says she would like to see more done to promote the free and reduced lunch program, since a staggering amount of the district’s current school lunch debt is held by families who qualify. Bishins notes that the application is available online and at local schools and that everyone can play a role in helping families get signed up.

There’s little question that such an outreach effort — not just by the district, but by others in the community who serve Tacoma’s children — could go a long way.

Districtwide, according to Lawver, roughly $50,000 of Tacoma’s school lunch debt is currently held by families eligible for free and reduced lunch.

While such a total might be hard to fathom, Lawver says such debt is often accrued before a family turns in the necessary paperwork for the program, of after a qualifying family fails to reapply.

Lawver said the district is “currently working on creating processes and strategies to better address this issue, especially this category of debt associated with families who qualify for free or reduced price meals.”

Ironically, according to Lawver, one thing that’s actually increased school lunch debt in Tacoma this year is a 2018 law intended to prevent “lunch shaming,” or the practice of districts providing potentially stigmatizing “emergency meals” to students unable to pay for a regular lunch.

In accordance with the law, Lawver said, this year Tacoma Schools has discontinued the use of emergency meals and allowed students to charge school lunches on their accounts indefinitely, unless “parents specifically request they not be allowed to.” Previously, students weren’t allowed to charge school lunches once their accounts were $10 in debt, Lawver said.

Lawver said the district realizes this is an imperfect system, and — like school districts across the state — is working to address it.

“Next year there will be different strategies in place based on state clarifications and advice, and what we and other districts have learned and tried this past year,” Lawver said. “We, and districts throughout the state, are working out the details regarding what exactly our next steps look like.”

Then there’s the larger picture, which Bishins is equally eager to shine a light on.

Simply feeding all of Tacoma’s schoolchildren, regardless of their ability to pay — and without sending families into needless debt — is an idea well worth considering, she says. Bishins believes it would improve educational outcomes and reduce the stigmatization of low-income families.

“It makes me sad, but I feel like this is an opportunity,” Bishins said of the conversation she’s hoping her family’s GoFundMe will inspire.

“I just feel like no family should have to go into the summer knowing that this debt is going to follow them into the next school year.”

She’s right. GoFundMe campaigns are great, but we can do better.