Eighth-grader Ben Hofer of Austin, Texas, is going above and beyond for a school assignment to benefit his community.
The 14-year-old student at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School launched the initiative “LunchCounts,” with a GoFundMe fundraising page on April 21. Hofer wanted to help Austin Independent School District (ISD) lower its lunch money debt. The budding philanthropist has already raised $8,000, nearly half the district's $18,000 debt.
"It's pretty crazy but the more the better, I guess, because it's more kids we could pay off,” Hofer told Good Morning America.
On the GoFundMe page, Hofer wrote that he recently learned about 5,000 students in Austin ISD currently carry a school lunch debt, which inspired him to start the project.
Lunch debt often goes hand in hand with “lunch shaming,” the practice of taking away lunch trays or providing students with less nutritious alternatives if their meal accounts have negative balances. Lunch shaming can ostracize low-income students, embarrass them, and make it harder to thrive at school if they’re distracted by whether or not they can afford to eat.
Hofer’s school doesn’t participate in lunch shaming, but according to Anneliese Tanner, executive director of Austin ISD food services and warehouse operations, 57% of students in the district receive free meals as part of the national school lunch program. Tanner said the district will never deny students a full quality lunch.
Not all students qualify for reduced lunch if their family’s income doesn’t meet the requirements, and they can still rack up a steep bill if they don’t have the fund. Tanner explained that due to Austin’s high cost of living, many families are struggling to stay afloat financially.
The harsh reality of how many families struggle with lunch debt made national conversation earlier this month when Rhode Island’s Warwick School District announced a plan to punish students with cafeteria balances by serving them cold sandwiches instead of hot meals. Officials put the policy on hold after receiving backlash, and the yogurt company Chobani stepped in with a large donation and urged others to join in to aid the district.
Hofer’s own fundraising efforts surpassed his expectations. He originally planned to raise $3,200 to pay off the debt at three schools with the highest lunch debt –– Blazier Elementary School, Paredes Middle School, and Akins High School –– and met his gown within just a few days. Hofer plans to keep up the fundraiser's momentum after he presents his school project the end of May and plans to pay lunch debt every year.