The current unpaid meal debt in Bismarck Public Schools is nearly $23,000.
Local photographer Phillip Schultz has launched a fundraiser with a goal to collect thousands of dollars to erase some of that debt. He's also organizing a free concert next month to help raise money for a cause he thinks the entire community can get behind.
Schultz said he and his family understand how a little help can go a long way.
"My family, we've received assistance in the past and it made a world of a difference," said Schultz, who was home-schooled in Bismarck.
Of the total lunch debt in Bismarck Public Schools, about half comes from families whose kids receive free and reduced lunch. Twenty-three percent of students districtwide qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.
Schultz said another reason he decided to raise money for unpaid lunch bills is because his friend's husband was laid off from his oil field job in a western North Dakota. The family has two children in BPS.
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"They had to choose which bills to pay. Unfortunately, the school lunch, it's provided but you're also supposed to pay for it. And if you don't necessarily qualify for assistance, what do you do?" Schultz said, adding that this prompted him to look into the issue.
Schultz started a Facebook fundraiser late last month and quickly raised about $1,100. Then, he and his friends, including one from Many Visions apparel store in Mandan, and other people he knows, raised another $1,700 within a few days. In total, so far, they've raised nearly $3,000.
"It blew me away. I was not expecting how quickly people received this and wanted to hop in and help," said Schultz, whose started another Facebook fundraiser, which will remain open until the day of the benefit concert, Aug. 11.
Schultz doesn't see his fundraising efforts as a long-term fix to the unpaid lunch debt. He said he believes the country's education system is underfunded, and lunch bills are "only one of the examples of that."
"As far as this being the almighty fix, I don't know about that. We just had to figure out something we can do for the meantime," he said.
Schultz is considering turning his Feed the Youth initiative into a statewide organization.
"There's so much opportunity to do good here, I think it would just be foolish to walk away from it," he said.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture called on schools to do a better job of alerting parents when they have insufficient funds in their children's lunch account.
Bismarck Public Schools updated its policy last year to restrict students from carrying a negative balance in their account. Parents must work with the district's child nutrition department to pay off debt, and parents will be notified often if a child has a low or negative balance.
The cost for a lunch at elementary schools is $2.25, and it is $2.75 at the middle and high schools. The cost for a reduced lunch is 40 cents.
Michelle Wagner, director of BPS child nutrition department said she appreciates Schultz's and other community members' efforts to reduce the district's unpaid lunch debt.
"I think it's nice of him to take on this work with community to try to help us lower this debt," she said.
The benefit concert will be held Aug. 11 at Custer Park. The event starts at 3 p.m. and includes live music and art. For more information, visit Feed the Youth's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/FeedTheYouthBismarck.
(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)