Doing good: How an Anchorage mom turned a small act of kindness into a flash fundraiser to pay for school lunches.

 Students enjoy lunch at Scenic Park Elementary in Anchorage.
Students enjoy lunch at Scenic Park Elementary in Anchorage. (KTUU)
Published: Dec. 13, 2019 at 5:19 PM AKST
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On a winter morning in Anchorage, Alaska, Moira Smith woke up with gratefulness on her mind. Before long, she turned it into a triumphant burst of community activism to benefit two area schools by paying off their lunch debt.

"We raised $7,079 over three or four days on Facebook," Smith told KTUU during a brief interview in the parking lot of Scenic Park Elementary School. With her, she brought check for more than half that amount - $4,400 - safely tucked away from the falling snow.

It would be the second time in less than a week that she'd walk into a school on a mission, and with a check in hand, to eliminate any outstanding school lunch debt families owed.

"I thought about how fortunate I am and how fortunate my family is. And I wondered about other families at the holidays. So I wrote an e-mail that morning to my daughter's principal at Rogers Park Elementary, and I asked her what the aggregate school debt was," Smith said.

At first, Smith asked principal Nuri Johnsen if $100 would help but then wondered if she should ask Johnsen about offsetting the school's entire lunch debt. "I could fundraise," she thought to herself, and it's at that moment that she decided to take on the more than $2,800 owed by families at Roger's Park Elementary School.

The day before Thanksgiving, at six in the morning, she launched a Facebook Fundraiser, kicking it off with a contribution of $200 of her own money. Within two hours, she'd raised $1,000. When she learned from her friend, Renee Limoge Reeve, that Scenic Park Elementary School also had a need, she increased her goal to $7,079 - enough to pay the school lunch balance at both schools.

On any given month, school lunch debt district-wide is about a half-million dollars, according to Andy Mergens, senior director of student nutrition for the Anchorage School District. When Smith set out to tackle some of that debt, she had just the two schools in mind. To her delight, Anchorage rallied.

Early in the afternoon, on the same day Smith launched the effort, she updated the "Forgive School Lunch Debt for the Holidays" Facebook with a picture of herself giving a check to a principal, along with this post: "And just like that, BOOM! Rogers Park's school lunch debt is completely forgiven. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your generous gifts. I am touched to my core, and so was the principal."

"She came by with a check for us that afternoon," Johnsen told KTUU in an interview a few days later, describing the gift as "absolutely wonderful, just amazing" and "so unexpected."

By the day after Thanksgiving, about 116 people had donated enough money also to wipe out debt at Scenic Park Elementary School.

"Here you go," Smith said to Scenic Park principal Lori Rucksdashel as she handed over a second check, accompanied by Limoge Reeve.

"That is amazing. You're awesome. Thank you so much," said Rucksdashel, who estimated the donation would help as many as 25 families zero out their lunch balances.

"Especially at this time of year, to try to pay off a large balance is very difficult. And so I know that they will be very excited to hear about it," Rucksdashel said.

Anchorage schools will always feed students. They don't turn anyone away, regardless of accrued debt or ability to pay. Thirty-five of the district's schools participate in a federal program that allows all school families to access free healthy breakfasts and lunches. The Community Eligibility Provision program targets schools with a high percentage of low-income families. School participation varies year-to-year.

As of the 2019-2020 school year Scenic Park Elementary School, which had been in the CEP program, is no longer included.

"It's just a hard switch to make," Rucksdashel said.

Depending on the school a student attends, and family income, elementary school lunch may be free, forty cents or four dollars. Middle school and high school pay a bit more. Spread across the district's some 48,000 students, bills can quickly add up at the 80 schools that offer lunch programs.

"It really makes a huge difference as to whether a student can stay awake during school, pay attention and learn. So our main focus, again, is if a student's hungry, we're going to feed them because they show up at our doorsteps first thing in the morning. And for that whole period throughout the day, our focus is education," Jim Anderson, Chief Financial Officer for the Anchorage School District, told KTUU.

"At any point during the year, there are a lot of parents out there that may have this fluctuating ability to pay for lunches. Sometimes they're waiting for the next paycheck. Sometimes they're having a rough recovery from Christmas," Anderson said.

Throughout the school year, many students and parents find ways to catch up on the lunch bills, Anderson said. Others, if they are income-qualified for free or reduced lunch, will have their past-due bills eliminated once they individually sign up for the program.

By the end of the year, the debt due, and the amount the district budgets to pay for is around $100,000, Anderson said. This amount is considered uncollectable, accumulated because students or families have graduated or left the district, or become eligible for an offset.

Because lunch money finances are centralized within the district, individual schools don't have to take money from their school's budgets to cover lunch debt.

Still, paying money to cover debt means less money for other things, like enrichment, music, art or sports programs, new curriculum, and even staff.

"If you can save roughly at district level between $100,000 to $400,000, then depending on whether it's an elementary or secondary teacher, then you now have the funding to be able to hire one additional teacher," Anderson said. "Any time we can help shore up all of those other resources at the schools instead of spending it on debt, it's a win-win for all our kids."

Smith's successful toe-dip into school-lunch holiday giving may not be over, as she recently posted to Facebook:

"Stay tuned, but a friend may be targeting school lunch debt at another Anchorage elementary school! Renee [Limoge Reeve], LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE! #anotheronebitesthedust."

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