The summer of 2019 was the best yet at The Mitten Brewing Company Northport. Ten months out of the year, Northport is a scenic but sleepy town at the northernmost tip of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. But in July and August, it swells with tourists, and our fourth summer saw sales up almost 25 percent from the previous one. We felt grateful and were looking for ways to pay it forward when our bartender Joe made us aware of a growing student lunch debt problem in nearby Suttons Bay, where he worked as a substitute teacher.
Though located less than a mile from an affluent downtown resort area, Suttons Bay schools serve a diverse population thanks in part to a nearby Native American reservation. Many students there carry lunch debt, as well as the stigma and shame that comes with it. Being a “lunch debt” kid can be tough. Not only do many districts provide these students with lower quality meals than their debt-free peers, some even stamp notices (see photo above) on their arms that read “I need lunch money.” This rightfully angers educators like Joe. He and his wife Jennifer personally pay down some of the debt every year, as do many other teachers, but the issue persists.
The total debt at Suttons Bay was about $2,700—the perfect size for a Mitten Foundation project—so we made arrangements with the district to wipe it clean. We presented the giant check in front of the school sign, snapped a picture, and posted it to our social media—just like we had for dozens of donations before. We shook hands with the grateful superintendent and headed back home. We honestly didn’t think much more would come of it.
The next day we received several press inquiries regarding the donation and I did a quick phone interview with MLive, a large Michigan media group. The following day, the article was published online where it was shared more than 138,000 times. It was everywhere. The Associated Press picked it up and ran it in major news outlets including USA Today, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. As one online commenter wrote, it was “the cheapest advertising we (n)ever bought.”
We were obviously happy but a bit puzzled because it really wasn’t unlike any of the other monthly donations we had made in the past. In fact, the amount paled in comparison to the $25,000 we raise at our annual food pantry fundraiser. But it struck a chord. School lunch debt had been an issue in the national press, with 75% of districts in U.S. reporting some amount of it. Certain schools were even punishing students for it and refusing help from outside sources.
The coverage wasn’t all good, however. The comments section of the news articles (where reason and sanity go to die), was full of criticism, including statements like:
• “The school superintendents should pay off the debt. They make too much!”
• “All they’re doing is letting the lazy parents off the hook.”
• “No one paid my debt when I was a kid. Why should these kids get theirs erased?”
And this was to be expected. Comment threads are strongholds for trolls and self-appointed ideologues, and the “perfect solution” fallacy—the notion that a solution should be rejected because some part of the problem would still exist after it were implemented—is evoked often and with impunity. But per usual, they completely missed the point.
For starters, it’s the district—not the parents—that ultimately assumes the unpaid debt. Since students can’t be denied lunch if a parent is unable to pay, schools must use district funds—likely appropriated for different things—to pay back the third-party food provider. So relieving lunch debt is essentially giving a gift to the school, an action that would rarely draw scrutiny outside of this context. Plenty of parents donate money to schools for far less useful things (band and sports boosters come to mind). But critics can’t get past the idea that these parents should be punished for their poverty. They are regularly (and rhetorically) assumed to be lazy, prone to vice, or guilty of prioritizing frivolous things over their child’s lunch.
Of course, these assumptions are baseless and reflect our pre-conceived biases about poverty, which can lead us to draw over-simplified conclusions about it. But the truth is much more ambiguous. The majority of poor Americans are in fact gainfully employed (59 percent of poor adults who are able to work, do), and the gap between low wages and high cost of living is often at the root of their poverty. And when we add things like addiction, abuse, racism and disability to the equation, poverty becomes even more complicated. The simple truth is that we rarely actually know why a particular student can’t afford their lunch.
Though the causes of food insecurity at school may be complex, the solution really isn’t. If you can afford to pay the debt, pay the debt. And we could, so we did. It was easy. We were simply following the lead of the countless teachers who often reach into their own pockets to make lives better for their students. Over the years, we’ve learned that sometimes our best role is to multiply good things that are already happening. Then these good things can become great things. Nine days after our Suttons Bay donation, we paid off the lunch debt for Fennville Public Schools, a district near our Saugatuck location. But it didn’t get as much coverage, and for good reason—it was overshadowed by another story. Inspired by our Suttons Bay gift, Fetch Brewing Company in nearby Whitehall had cleared the lunch debt from not one but two of their neighboring school districts, donating more than $5,500, on the same day. The story traveled wide, diminished not a bit by the amount of coverage we had received the week before.
A few months later, Little River Casino and Resort announced that through a joint effort with 25 neighboring businesses, they raised more than $14,000 and cleared the debt for students in their home of Manistee County. They too had been inspired by our gesture. “The Mitten Brewing Company (’s gifts) got me thinking a lot about what we can do together,” said the casino’s food and beverage director.
Several weeks after that, 42 Applebees restaurants throughout Michigan held lunch debt fundraisers for the communities they do business in, and Trail Point Brewing cleared lunch debts in their home of Allendale. As each story appeared in the news, we were thrilled and felt a little like proud parents. Albeit a little self-conscious. It was such a cheap and easy way to do some good, it felt like we were getting far more praise than we deserved.
But sometimes things really are that easy, despite our best efforts to complicate them. Making school better for kids with barriers is an incredible opportunity with a low price tag. Our modest gift—which more than paid for itself—sparked a movement that has eliminated the lunch debt of thousands of Michigan students so far. And I have a feeling there are more gifts to come.
The old axiom tells us there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and it’s true. Someone absolutely has to pay for every single one of them. But punishing children because we can’t agree on who or what that should be? That’s not worthy of us. Of any of us.