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Saturday, February 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Anonymous donation helps eliminate lunch debt in Medical Lake School District

Second-grader William Bornstein-Stewart, right, waits while Elaine Zickler, left, prepares a dish of corn chips with taco meat and cheese sauce in the school lunch line at Grant Elementary School in Spokane in this October 2019 photo. Students in the Medical Lake School District had their school lunch debts forgiven to begin the new year after donations were made to cover the balances. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Second-grader William Bornstein-Stewart, right, waits while Elaine Zickler, left, prepares a dish of corn chips with taco meat and cheese sauce in the school lunch line at Grant Elementary School in Spokane in this October 2019 photo. Students in the Medical Lake School District had their school lunch debts forgiven to begin the new year after donations were made to cover the balances. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

School administrators are crediting Christmastime donations, including one for $6,500 from an anonymous donor, with eliminating lunch debt for Medical Lake students.

The anonymous donation, one from the Medical Lake Volunteer Firefighters Association and ongoing assistance from the city’s food bank in recent weeks have erased all unpaid balances for meals in the district, Superintendent Tim Ames said this week.

“It’s significant,” said Ames, who came to the school district five years ago from Wellpinit. “You just think about the relief you can give to a family that is truly struggling.”

The donations will help students beyond those who are on free- or reduced-lunch, a national program that provides complimentary or discounted meals to students based on their families’ income. Ames said roughly one-third of the district’s 1,800 enrolled students qualify for the program, but others need help too.

“Families making living wages, they may not qualify for that,” Ames said of the federal program. “People operate at that line. They’re making their best effort to buy groceries and pay their rent. They really deserve the help.”

School lunch debt philanthropy has become more prominent in the years following the Great Recession, including in the Inland Northwest.

Spokane native Todd Carmichael attempted last summer to pay off lunch debt in a northeastern Pennsylvania school district, only to be rebuffed by administrators. A Hayden student received national recognition for using the proceeds from her lemonade stand to settle the accounts of her classmates in Coeur d’Alene Public Schools. A GoFundMe fundraiser raised more than $3,000 to pay off lunch debts in Spokane Public Schools in 2017.

Ames said the district has seen several students recently who will benefit from the donation, including a student who became homeless over the holiday break. Another family has seen a debt as high as $800 across multiple students, as the district is required to provide a lunch even if the student cannot afford to pay. That requirement was codified in state law in 2018.

“We’ve offset it with our levy dollars,” Ames said of the existing school lunch debts accrued by students.

The donation from the firefighters association comes after the nonprofit disbanded this year, according to state records. Voters in Medical Lake chose to become part of Spokane County Fire District 3 in August, ending more than a century of a volunteer fire department servicing the city. Representatives of the nonprofit told the Cheney Free Press in December that the donation was made as the nonprofit closed its accounts to honor the history of volunteerism in the community.

The other donor wished to remain anonymous. The Spokesman-Review confirmed receipt of a check for $6,548.39 by the district through the donor.

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