A Palmer mom is raising money to pay down school lunch debt for students and their families.

Laura Sampson said she was inspired after she saw national headlines about students being barred from graduation or receiving only jelly sandwiches because they had an outstanding bill.

She started a GoFundMe page that raised more than $1,000 in less than two weeks. Donations range from as little has $5 to as much as $200.

“I thought if I could just make debt go away for some people or reduce it, how stress-free would their summer be if they didn’t have that hanging over their heads,” Sampson said.

At Swanson Elementary School, principal Rourka Spatz knows well-fed kids perform better in the classroom.

“Getting full meals when they’re here, breakfast and lunch, is important to us. If they’re hungry, they’re not going to focus on the academics,” she said.

Swanson has served more than 14,000 meals this year, but not every family has the ability to pay. With just a few days left before summer vacation, the school has a lunch debt total of more than $1,800.

Spatz said no child is ever turned away from a hot meal.

“We don’t want them to struggle knowing they have a debt to pay,” she said. “We don’t want them to struggle between can I get my kids to the grocery store, do I have enough gas in the car versus paying the debt here.”

Sampson is a food writer and blogger who struggled as a single mother. Neither of her children go to the schools where she has donated the money she raised.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District estimates there’s an average of $1,100 in debt at the 36 schools that receive nutritional services; that adds up to nearly $40,000.

Sampson was only planning to have her fundraising page up for a few days, but she said donations keep coming in.

“People care about this," she said. "They want kids to have good lunches. They want people to have good lives and they recognize sometimes you need a hand up."

On Monday morning, Sampson delivered $545 to the school.

“I almost fell off my chair,” Spatz said. “It just meant the world.”

District office staff urge parents to pay their outstanding debts if they’re able to. If families can’t afford the full-price lunches, they’re encouraged to apply for free or reduced meals.

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