Food by VICE

Great, This Again!: A Child Raised Funds to Pay Off Classmates' Lunch Debt

We should feel bad that literal children have to crowdfund for their peers.

by Bettina Makalintal
Dec 18 2019, 8:30pm

Photo by SDI Productions via iStock/Getty Images Plus

Brought on by the news that nine-year-old Ryan Kirkpatrick used $75 of his own allowance to pay his third grade classmates' school lunch debt, we argued this past June that a kid paying off his classmates' lunch debt isn't a 'feel good' story. The common framing of these really quite hellish stories, as positive bits of inspiration or something to warm our hearts, is not only exhausting, but insulting. It's been only six months since that incident and we're now faced with yet another one of these faux-charming tales, and thus, forced to rehash this point.

So because "school lunch debt" is an unfortunately rampant American problem, we must address it again. Another piece of pseudo-inspiration has been added to the late capitalism canon. Great! Normal! We live in a society!

As the Hill and other publications covered earlier this week, a five-year-old girl in California has become the latest child forced to face a depressing financial problem she really shouldn't have to solve. After Katelynn Hardee, a kindergartener, heard a parent at school mention having trouble paying for an after-school program, Hardee's mother explained to her that not everyone has the same amount of money, so people should give when they can, per CNN. On December 8, Hardee set up a stand selling hot chocolate, cookies, and cider, and the $80 that she and her mother collected was used to pay the outstanding lunch balances for over 100 students at her school.

"Everybody is just so proud and happy and other students are already talking about ways they can also make a difference," Hardee's principal, Lori Higley, told CNN, and of course—as with Ryan Kirkpatrick's generous donation in June—Katelynn Hardee's good deed should be commended. But just like last time, a positive spin has been put on the unfortunate situation, with Today calling it "Good News" and a "Morning Boost," for example. What exactly does this framing serve, except to briefly pretend that the big problems have been solved?

Clearly, our lens for stories like these remains warped, despite the outrage and the investigations that show the growing problem of American school lunch debt. With 75 percent of school districts reporting unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016/2017 school year and 40 percent reporting an increase in the number of students unable to pay for meals, according to a survey from the School Nutrition Association, Hardee's actions aren't something innocuous like a dog caught on camera trying to steal hamburger buns or inspiring in the sense of two centenarians celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary. It's another sign that something is wrong in our schools, an issue that's not actually solved by little news blips of brightness.

How many scrappy snack stands must it take before these bits of "inspiration" push the adults in charge toward bigger change? If five-year-olds didn't have to think about fixing what capitalism has created, that would be a hell of a lot more inspiring.

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