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ParentMap 2018 Superhero Jeff Lew: The Cafeteria Crusader

A Q&A with the Seattle dad fighting to end lunch shaming

Malia Jacobson

Published on: March 30, 2018

Jeff Lew. Photo credit: Will Austin
Jeff Lew. Photo credit: Will Austin

Like many of us, Jeff Lew never imagined that adults would take hot lunch out of the hands of a hungry kid because the kid couldn’t cover the $3 cost. Then, the Seattle dad (and former student of Seattle Public Schools) read a CNN article about America’s “lunch shaming crisis” (i.e., when school officials give kids with negative lunch account balances cold sack lunches, or no lunch at all). He immediately got in touch with his son’s school to learn more.  

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) doesn’t shame kids with negative lunch account balances, staff at his son’s school assured him, but like three-quarters of American schools, the school did have a “lunch debt” — the sum of the students’ negative lunch account balances — of $97.10.

Lew quickly set up a GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost; he met the goal within a couple of days. Encouraged, he decided to take on SPS’s district-wide lunch debt of $20,531.79. Within days, local media started reporting on his efforts and donations rolled in, including some from high-profile contributors like the Safeway Foundation and singer-songwriter John Legend, who heard about the campaign on Twitter.

The campaign quickly met its goal, and Lew worked with World Impact Network to disperse money to the district. But his work wasn’t done. Lew decided to use the momentum to create campaigns for the Renton, Tacoma, Spokane and Clover Park school districts (all are still accepting donations). By August 2017, his campaigns had raised more than $100,000, so Lew set his sights higher: erasing Washington state’s debt of some $650,000. That campaign has garnered more than $44,000 to date. 

Erasing lunch debts isn’t a permanent fix for poverty and economic inequality, says Lew, who works full-time at a local government agency serving low-income families. But he’s proud of the impact his donors have made. “I had no idea whether I’d succeed, but I was blown away by the support.”

What’s the most misunderstood part of your job?

Awareness. A lot of people don’t even know that lunch debt exists, so there’s an education component to this advocacy work.  

What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?

I was hesitant to set up the first campaign. There are a lot of campaigns out there. What if no one donates? My advice is just try — just go for it. You don’t know if you’re going to succeed.  

Best advice for kids with big ambition?

You’ll fail at many things, but it makes you stronger. You have to keep going. Keep trying different ideas and goals.

Who inspires you?

Great philanthropists like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. 

What’s one takeaway you’d like families to understand about your line of work or area of expertise?

I’m not going to stop. If we end lunch debt, we can end lunch shaming. My mission isn’t done, and I’m going to keep going.

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