Opinion: Local Democrats lead bipartisan effort to support Gila County students burdened with school lunch debt

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By Lauren Gepford, Chris Senko

March 22, 2024

By: Chris Senko, Chair, Gila County Democrats and Lauren Gepford, Director, Contest Every Race

There is a transformative power of community action. 

It’s no secret that Gila County is conservative, but there is a lot that unites us across political differences. As a Democrat who organizes support for Democratic candidates in Gila County, I could tell you a lot of stories about division, but it’s important we focus on where we are united, as well. 

Being a Democrat means supporting all families and all students so they can thrive and succeed. When we learned that students in our public schools are in debt and receiving reduced lunches simply because they cannot afford the standard lunch, we knew we needed to take action. 

Our campaign started as a small idea at a local meeting and quickly blossomed into a bipartisan effort that rallied the entire community. We didn’t just raise funds; we sparked a conversation about the importance of ensuring every child has access to nutritious meals at school.  

Our County School Superintendent, a Republican, donated. Other Republicans have donated. Checks came in the mail. A woman we’d never met came into our County Democratic Party office,  asked a few questions, and left an unmarked envelope with 10 $100 bills. 

One day, I checked our mailbox and picked up a check for $3,000 from a man in Chandler, a very right-leaning Independent.  I feel like we’ve landed on something big that is touching a lot of people, from both sides.

In February, we were pleased to announce that we raised $8,200, all of which went to Gila County school districts to pay off student lunch debt from families of all political backgrounds. We currently have three of our seven county school districts providing free lunches to all students. 

As Democrats, we must stand firm in our values and ensure that all children can learn, grow, and be healthy. Our goal is to have free, nutritious lunches for all Gila County public school students. Let’s do what we can to get our state and federal representatives to find a way to provide free school lunches to all Arizona public school students. Kids shouldn’t have to be humiliated or hungry. 

This bipartisan effort to relieve families of school lunch debt is thanks in large part to Contest Every Race, a program we are a part of to help local county groups build bridges and gain more local support. For too long, Democrats have disinvested from rural America. Contest Every Race is dedicated to building up Democratic organizing infrastructure in places in Gila County. 

We receive funding from them, and they help us recruit candidates to run for local office. Contest Every Race suggested that we hold a community service event, which sparked our idea to raise funds to retire student lunch debt. 

This isn’t just about settling debts; it’s about affirming our commitment to the well-being and future of our children. The impact of our actions extends beyond the immediate relief of financial burdens. It’s a statement that in our community, we take action to support each other, especially our youngest and most vulnerable.

The challenge of school lunch debt is a symptom of broader issues that require attention at the federal, state, and local levels. While our efforts have provided temporary relief, they underscore the need for systemic changes to ensure that no child has to go hungry or accrue debt for simply wanting a meal.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, but I see it as the beginning rather than the end. It’s a call to action for communities everywhere to recognize the importance of universal free school meal programs and the profound impact they can have on students’ health, attendance, and academic performance. Our collective efforts can and will make a difference toward ensuring every child has access to the nutrition they need to thrive both in and out of the classroom.

Authors

  • Lauren Gepford

    Lauren Gepford is the Director of Contest Every Race. She comes to this work with 15 years of down-ballot candidate campaign and Democratic Party support experience and loves supporting local and underserved progressives

  • Chris Senko

    Chris Senko is a resident of Payson and is the Chair of the Gila County Democratic Party.

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