The Commercial Appeal
Teacher raises $30,000 to erase student lunch debt
Students can’t learn if they’re hungry, a Utah middle-school teacher shared in a now-viral Tiktok clip.
Garrett Jones’ six-second video quickly sparked a wave of generosity that would pay off thousands of dollars worth of student lunch debt.
“School lunch should be free,” wrote Jones, a five-year educator of Heber City’s Rocky Mountain Middle School, in the viral clip’s caption.
The seventh- and eighth-grade teacher posted the video as a twist on a social media trend that involved people requesting small donations toward personal trips, weddings or dream cars, KSL News reported.
When Jones, a father of two, decided to use the trend for a charitable cause two weeks ago, he had no clue the video would help raise more than $30,000.
“I was blown away,” Jones told USA TODAY. “I was literally expecting, bestcase scenario, maybe we’d get a couple hundred bucks.”
The funds will go to canceling outstanding lunch fees in the Wasatch County School District, Jones said.
Students in Jones’ school district were among the 50 million who received free lunches for two years through the federal program that covered the costs during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
The program ended last year, which means some students are again forced to face outstanding lunch fees in the cafeteria line.
“It’s really not up to them to be able to pay, but it’s them who we have to hand a little slip to take home and say, ‘Here’s your balance,’ which isn’t super fun for them or us,” Jones said.
He has spotted students hanging out in the halls during lunchtime, he shared, adding that his school’s cafeteria staff feeds children regardless of whether they owe money.
“I think for middle schoolers, probably the only thing worse than being hungry is being embarrassed,” Jones said. “Being at the front of the line and
hearing they have a balance is likely enough to dissuade some of them from even eating at all.”
Aware that some students go as far as skipping lunch to avoid embarrassment, he posted a Tiktok video stating he could pay the outstanding lunch fees of each student at his school if 2,673 people each sent him $1 via Venmo.
“The last thing a kid should be worrying about is how much money they owe for meals at a place they’re legally obligated to be,” the video’s text read.
The clip has gotten 5 million views. Even more touching than the generosity of strangers were the comments visible only to him as people donated, Jones said.
“So many of them were $1, $2 or $3, and they were like, ‘I really can’t afford to do much more than this, but I was that kid, I know what it’s like to get that slip and to hear that you have a balance,’ ” he said.
Jones, who was honored as the Wasatch Education Foundation’s Distinguished Educator of the Year last May, is working with the foundation to cover the approximately $4,000 of outstanding lunch fees across the district.
“Garrett is an example of an educator who is passionate about wholly supporting kids,” said Kimberly Dickerson, a member of the school board and the foundation’s board of directors.