Why a fundraiser named for Philando Castile paid off an entire school district's lunch debts
In life, Philando Castile had a reputation for using his own money to buy lunch for students who couldn't afford it at the elementary school cafeteria where he worked.
Now — two years after he was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minn. — a fundraiser created in Castile's name has raised enough money to wipe clean the school lunch debts of more than 1,800 children.
"I think he'd be pretty happy," Pamela Fergus, organizer of Philando Feeds the Children, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
"From what I've heard [from] his co-workers and his friends, he was just simply good guy and was all about making sure those kids were well-fed."
Philando Feeds the Children delivered a $35,000 US cheque to St. Paul Public Schools last week.
That's enough to wipe clean the lunch debts of every student enrolled in the National School Lunch Program in the district's 56 schools — including J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, where Castile was a beloved nutrition worker known to students as "Mr. Phil."
And they're not done yet, Fergus said.
Castile's mother, Valerie Castile, shared the news on Facebook, thanking Fergus, her class and "all the generous people of the world."
Castile, 32, was shot five times on July 6, 2016, by St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez during a traffic stop, after Castile told the officer he was armed. Castile had a permit for his gun.
The shooting gained widespread attention after Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car with her then-four-year-old daughter, live streamed its gruesome aftermath on Facebook.
Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter and other charges last year.
Fergus, a university instructor, discussed the case with her diversity and ethics class at Metropolitan State University.
Every year, her students are expected to collaborate on a class project.
"I usually try to steer them into doing something that gives back to the community," Fergus said.
Last year, shortly after Yanez was acquitted, the class started Philando Feeds the Children with the aim of paying the lunch debts at Castile's school.
"We had this enormously high goal of $5,000 and I was worried sick that we would never make it by December last year," she said.
But the students raked in $104,000 by the deadline and kept going.
To date, she says, the charity has raised more than $170,000, and she expects it to top $200,000 by the week's end.
What is school lunch debt?
According to a 2016 survey of 1,000 school meal program operators by the School Nutrition Association, about three-quarters of U.S. school districts had unpaid student meal debt at the end of that school year.
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Children from the poorest families get free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch under the federal National School Lunch Program.
But some struggle to pay even reduced prices. Other families, who would qualify for free or reduced prices, fail to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Most school districts allow children to run a tab for a certain number of meals, if they come up short.
If parents ignore school notices about their child's overdrawn lunch account, the debt may be sent to a collection agency. Ultimately, taxpayers may have to cover it.
The donations from Philando Feeds the Children have so far have wiped clean the pre-existing debt of children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.
The next step, Fergus said, is to pay the debt of those kids who are still accruing debt because their parents haven't yet filled out the paperwork to join.
"Our goal is to pay it all and, if the fund gets large enough, we will expand beyond St. Paul," Fergus said.
"I teach this class every semester and we're going to take it on."
— With files from The Associated Press
Correction: An earlier version of this story called Philando Feeds the Children a charity. In fact, it is a fundraiser.
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