An online fundraiser started in memory of Philando Castile has raised more than enough to pay off the St. Paul Public Schools’ entire school lunch debt.
As of Monday afternoon, donations to Philando Feeds the Children had passed the $155,000 mark — and the fundraiser’s founder said she hopes to expand the effort to other school districts.
That money already has been used to clear the $45,000 debt of nearly 1,800 St. Paul students enrolled in the federal school lunch program as of last month, district officials said. And Pamela Fergus said the fund will cover the school district’s remaining debt — up to $57,000 — for students who owe money once they sign up for the federal program.
“I’m not going to stop this,” said Fergus, who teaches at both Metropolitan State University and Inver Hills Community College. “Actual activism — this is pretty new to me and it fits.”
The project, Fergus’ brainchild, was launched in the weeks after Castile was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop in 2016.
Students in Fergus’ diversity and ethics class at Metropolitan State started the YouCaring.com fundraiser in memory of Castile, a nutrition supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet in St. Paul. Their goal was to raise $5,000.
Last fall, Fergus delivered $10,000 in online donations to J.J. Hill toward that school’s outstanding lunch debt. A week ago, Fergus dropped off a $35,000 check to the school district, with more money yet to come.
The $45,000 total wipes clear the debt of all 1,788 St. Paul students enrolled in the federal school lunch program as of Feb. 2, officials said. As of Monday, more than 4,000 people had donated to the online fundraiser.
In order for the Castile fund to wipe out students’ debt, families must have filled out an application to the federal program. District officials are urging them to apply, even if they don’t think they qualify, so the district has a record of their financial need. The Castile lunch fund money can go farther if families who qualify fill out the form, district officials said, and avoid going into further debt.
Nearly 70 percent of St. Paul’s 37,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But many parents either aren’t aware of the program, struggle with the application or end up earning a bit too much to qualify. Others don’t realize they have to reapply every year.
Typically about 2,400 students end up owing the district for lunch at the end of the school year.
Fergus said people have been generous because they like knowing where their money is going. She recently upped the fundraiser’s online goal to $999,999.
“I put in the highest amount you can put in,” Fergus said. “I think $1 million … could probably help the whole state.”