By Kris Gruber
That old adage no longer applies: There is now such a thing as a free lunch, and it is here to stay.
With help from a willing community, the founders of Lunch Aid North Dakota are continuing their fight to erase school lunch debt. The current fundraiser for The Neighborhood Church and upcoming benefit concert will bolster their ongoing mission to eliminate food insecurity in our state.
The High Plains Reader spoke with co-founders Jason Boynton, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, NDSU, and Kari Lugo, Director, Northern PR and Marketing, about the beginnings of Lunch Aid North Dakota, their collaboration with The Neighborhood Church, and how the public can help.
HIGH PLAINS READER: Tell us about the beginnings of Lunch Aid North Dakota. What went into the initial planning for this organization, and your involvement with it?
Jason Boynton: In the beginning, I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon a news article about part of a $26,000 student lunch debt held by Fargo Public Schools (FPS) being turned over to a collections agency. I shared the article with the caption “where can I donate?” Friend and musician Russell Pfaff suggested a benefit concert in the comments. I thought my musician friends could “band” together and raise some money to pay the debt down. My new friend Kari Lugo offered to help while we were eating lunch together. Kari has a wealth of experience in marketing, promotion, and fundraising! Together, we created LUNCH AID 2019: Fargo Bands for School Kids.
We had an online fundraising event that culminated in a concert featuring 10 local bands. All of whom donated their time and talents for free! We raised $20,000 and paid off the portion of the debt headed to collections.
Here is one positive unintended consequence of LUNCH AID 2019: In addition to relieving the debt for the 2018-2019 academic year, we were able to raise awareness in such a way that an anonymous donor paid off the Fargo Public Schools debt for the first half of AY 2019-2020. We are very proud to have been a catalyst for this generous action. For the sake of completeness, it is worth noting that there was no lunch debt for the second half. Moreover, the federal government provided no-cost school lunches as a result of the pandemic.
A second positive outcome was that our team -- including Andrew Bushaw (AFL-CIO), Courtney Schaff (North Dakota United), and Dane DeKrey (ACLU) -- was able to get several punitive actions removed from FPS policy regarding school lunch debt. Most importantly, they will no longer turn students’ families over to collections.
HPR: What have been some goals of the group, and have those goals or objectives evolved over these first few years?
JB: The goal of this organization is to eradicate food insecurity in the state of North Dakota. There is no need for it in our great state. We are one of the richest states, per capita, in the United States. Our initial focus (2019) was on school lunch debt. As a result of the pandemic, the federal government has provided no cost school lunches for all public-school students during AY 2020-2021 and AY 2021-2022. In order to stay active in 2020, LUNCH AID partnered with the non-profit organization, Heart n Soul Community Café. We raised another $20,000 to assist with their efforts to prepare and distribute bag lunches every weekend to anybody in need. This year, we are partnering with The Neighborhood Church who has several programs to help any community member that is suffering from food insecurity. We are hoping to raise $25,000 to help them with their mission. This year, we have solidified one of our missions: We Help People Feed People. Going forward, we will partner with a 501c3 charitable nonprofit organization in order to help raise funds with them and to amplify their message. Our mission has remained consistent. LUNCH AID is on a mission to eliminate the suffering of food-insecure residents in the Fargo-Moorhead area and, beyond that, in the entire state of North Dakota. We aim to assist other non-profit organizations in their efforts to eradicate hunger. Our team engages people to take philanthropic action through the universal language of music. Indeed, our first partner was the Fargo Public Schools Foundation, which is a 501c3 independent from FPS. When school lunch debt returns, we will refocus much of our efforts on the kids.
HPR: How did that collaboration with The Neighborhood Church and Community Center come about? Tell us a bit about the fundraiser going on currently.
JB: Kari looked around for an organization that moved her. We follow her heart on these things. She was 100% right about The Neighborhood Church (TNC). Jessica Olson Miller is doing great work at TNC, and they are feeding a lot of people that need a little assistance. The fundraiser could use an energizer. We are halfway through the campaign and we are right around $11,000 (which is much less than halfway to our goal of $25,000). We are very hopeful to raise the whole amount since TNC is planning on building an on-site 24/7 food pantry. We would like to help them build and stock this pantry for a substantial amount of time. We will continue to look for local businesses to help support our mission. But we will ask the public to buy tickets to see Dessa, featuring Diane and Emy Miller, with special guest Hiahli (pronounced HIGH-Uh-Lie…as in the sport). Tickets are $25, which will fill a pantry box for a local family in need. BUY A TICKET, FEED A FAMILY.
The Neighborhood Church and Community Center has three programs that we aim to support via this fundraising event:
How your donation will help feed people:
KARI LUGO: I had been watching the efforts of TNC on Facebook and loved their community approach. They focus on the well-being and wholeness of a person, by feeding their bodies, but also caring for them as human beings. I liked that they offer neighborhood meals for anyone who wants to come, and home-cooked holiday meals for those with no place to go. They are also working on a fully stocked, always open food shelf for anyone who needs it. All these reasons sealed the deal that we wanted to help. As human beings, the least we can do for our neighbors is feed them if they are hungry. This community has been supportive from day one, and this year is no exception!
HPR: What are you excited about in regards to the upcoming benefit event at The Sanctuary in Fargo?
JB: We are excited to sell out this show. We need to sell 600 tickets. So far, we have sold 70.
KL: Live music! And, the chance to see that excellent live music while also knowing all my ticket purchase price will go to feeding people. How exciting that we can all come together to help lift up our fellow community members, and also get your groove on! I think everyone in Fargo-Moorhead will want to come to this show, how could you go wrong?!
HPR: How can people get involved with Lunch Aid North Dakota?
JB: PLEASE BUY TWO TICKETS OR DONATE. If you know of a business that wants to give a little back to the community, please ask them to donate. If you are not in a position to support financially, please consider spreading the word.
KL: We have a fantastic advisory board who help guide us through the motions of our mission, but we are always seeking volunteers to help with social media and outreach. We are currently accepting interest in our digital street team, who will help us develop Lunch Aid to its fullest potential! Send us a message, we love to share this mission!
HPR: Are there any upcoming events or collaborations in the works?
JB: I would like to check all North Dakota public school districts to see if there is any remaining lunch debt. It would be nice to “take the show on the road” to see if we can start with a clean slate in the state of ND when/if no-cost school lunches are no more.
IF YOU GO
Lunch Aid 2021
Benefit concert featuring Dessa and Hiahli
Sunday, September 19
Doors Open: 6PM, Music: 6:30PM
Sanctuary Events Center, Fargo
October 17th 2021
August 19th 2021
May 18th 2021
May 18th 2021
December 17th 2020
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