Fundraiser in Philando Castile’s memory eliminates $70,000 worth of school lunch debt

The fundraiser is also bringing attention to a real problem facing many schools.

Credit: (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Credit: (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Philando Castile was known as “Mr. Phil” to the students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked as a nutrition services supervisor.

Last month, more than one year after Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Castile during a traffic stop, Pamela Fergus, a psychology professor at a community college in Minnesota launched a fundraiser called “Philando Feeds the Children”, which was created to honor Castile’s memory. The funds are being used to pay off several thousands of dollars worth of school lunch debt accrued by students at J.J. Hill.

“[Castile] supervised their food program and interacted with the kids every day. He knew their names and their diets. He LOVED his job!” Ferguson wrote on the fundraiser’s YouCaring site. “Philando’s death affected every one of those kids. This fund hopes to provide the kids with a lasting connection to Mr. Phil.”

Last Friday, Castile’s mother Valerie presented the school with a check for $10,000 dollars to go towards school lunch debt elimination. At J.J. Hill, nearly 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, however, not every family applies, leaving some children indebted to the school. In St. Paul, where roughly 70 percent of students qualify for free lunches, around 2,000 students end up owing money at the end of the school year.

The fundraiser initially had a goal of $5,000, but has raised more than $72,000 since its foundation. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the remainder of the money — nearly $60,000 dollars and counting — will go toward reducing the school lunch debt of other schools across the St. Paul School District.

Similar fundraisers targeting lunch debt elimination have popped up on crowd-funding sites like GoFundMe in recent months, in response to “lunch-shaming” policies at some schools. In one particularly eregerious instance of lunch-shaming, a Santa Fe woman working the cash register at a local school’s cafeteria told a 4-year-old girl whose parents had missed her lunch payments that she had no money and threw the girl’s lunch in the trash.

In a similar instance, a Salt Lake City, Utah elementary school in 2014 tossed out cafeteria meals of 40 students who had unpaid lunch balances.The school later apologized and said in a statement that it would “commit to working with parents in rectifying this situation and to ensuring students are never treated in this manner again.”

Some states have taken preventative measures to halt lunch-shaming practices. California and Texas have both passed legislation that bans schools from shaming children — either by tossing their meals in the trash, making them wear identifying labels noting their debt, making them do extra chores, or giving them alternative meals — who don’t have the ability to pay for food.

The fate of free and reduced lunch in general is in limbo. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has hinted that he may roll back some of former first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy lunch initiatives. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also made a popular Republican joke at CPAC 2017 that there is “no such thing as a free lunch.” And just last year, Republicans pushed a bill that would have stopped public schools from offering free lunch to all students.