Durham County

Durham’s ‘Lunch Lady’ steps up campaign to pay off students’ school-meals debt

Rebekah Miel wants to pay off the entire $103,000 school-lunch debt owed by all Durham Public Schools students.
Rebekah Miel wants to pay off the entire $103,000 school-lunch debt owed by all Durham Public Schools students. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The Durham woman who turned to social media to help some Durham Public Schools students pay off their lunch-account balances now has a much bigger goal.

Rebekah Miel wants to pay off the entire $103,000 debt owed by all DPS students.

“There was such a great response,” Miel said of her initial effort. “I haven’t seen this kind of momentum build [for a cause] in a long time.”

Miel’s original goal was to raise $4,500 to pay off the lunch accounts for students who receive reduced-price lunches.

Her effort, via GoFundMe, raised more than $25,000 from 507 donors in just one week. DPS has already collected the money to pay off the debt for those students.

Now, Miel has turned her attention to raising about $75,000 more to finish paying off the remainder of students’ lunch debt.

Her latest venture has a new business component with sponsorship opportunities available.

Local businesses can donate $100, $250, $500 or $1,000 toward paying down the debt and in return receive posters and postcards with their business logos and “mentions” on the campaign’s social media.

James Keaten, executive director of school nutrition services, said earlier this month that the total amount owed by all DPS students with balances on their lunch accounts is $103,835.

Out of the 1,500 students who receive reduced-priced lunches, about 636 – 42.4 percent – owed money, he said.

The remainder of the debt belong to students who pay full price for school lunches.

A server at a Durham elementary school dishes up a hot meal. Durham Public Schools

About two-thirds of the district’s nearly 34,000 students receive either free or reduced-priced lunches. Their parents pay 40 cents for each meal.

Miel told The Herald-Sun just before Thanksgiving that she launched the GoFundMe campaign because she is concerned about food insecurity among Durham children. For some of them, the school lunch is the only meal they receive during the day, she said. .

She said Tuesday that paying off the debt for all students provides an “equitable solution” for those DPS students, who for whatever reason, can’t pay off their lunch debts.

She acknowledged that some families capable of paying might be on the receiving end of the community’s generosity.

But “there’s no way to tell if someone accidentally defaulted or need the help,” she said. “The equitable way to respond is to take care of all of the debt. If they receive the help and don’t need it, they can just pay it forward to someone else.”

Durham has a tradition of residents stepping forward to help pay of lunch account balances for students attending Durham Public Schools.

Lunch Angels NC,” a nonprofit organization that has routinely paid off lunch account balances for individual DPS schools is probably the best known.

In May, the founders, Kyle Newman and Walt Winfrey of Craig Motor Co. and Erik Neill, chief instructor and owner of Neill’s Taekwondo and Fitness, cleared overdue accounts totaling more than $1,000 at Forest View, Creekside and Parkwood elementary schools.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645