By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
Everyone seems to want to talk to Jeffrey Lew these days. A former participant in the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s Summer Youth Leadership Program (SYLP), Lew has become a media sensation because of a GoFundMe campaign he began in May to pay off the school lunch debt at his son’s school. We had a chance to talk with Lew on the fly, as he was going from one speaking engagement to yet another interview.
Lew was crushed after seeing a CNN Money story about cafeteria staff taking away hot meals from students and replacing it with a bag lunch of cold food — an undesired badge of shame — or sometimes not providing an alternative at all. Some kids go hungry and won’t eat a bag lunch because of “lunch shaming.”
Being a dad, Lew imagined how he would feel if his child didn’t get to eat, or was taunted for eating “poor people food.” “Kids are cruel,” said Lew. He heard from one donor who thanked him and recalled her trauma being teased by other children for getting brown bag lunches. The donor told Lew her father worked overtime to afford school lunches, but when the overtime ran out, so did the money for hot meals. “That broke my heart,” said Lew.
On the flip side, John Carlson, KVI-AM talk radio host, asked Lew whether his fundraising punished responsible parents, while rewarding irresponsible parents who think they don’t have to pay for school lunches. Lew responded that kids should not suffer because of their parents’ financial situation, whatever that might be. Though surprised by the question, Lew felt better prepared for difficult questions in the future.
In the short amount of time Lew began his fundraising efforts, he’s found two types of people — supporters and naysayers.
He tries his best to avoid negative comments about why Lew is getting attention when it’s not his money, that kids should learn to deal with shaming, or that parents shouldn’t be getting a free ride.
None of the media coverage has been because Lew sought it out. The media came to him for whatever reason, and he’s unsure how or why he got so much publicity. He thinks he may have struck a nerve with the right people at the right time. It’s come full circle, said Lew, starting with his learning about lunch debt and shaming from a CNN story, to CNN doing a story about his successful fundraising efforts.
Capitalizing on his media fame, Lew began GoFundMe campaigns for the Seattle, Tacoma, Renton, and Spokane school districts. He coordinated with the school districts to ensure the funds go directly to them. In addition to raising three kids with his wife and working a full-time job, Lew figures he spends about three to four hours a night responding to media requests and maintaining a social media presence to keep the momentum going forward.
People are hailing Lew as a hero, but Lew insists he’s not. “The community is the hero. It’s the community who has rallied and done the work.” He’s gratified for leaving a legacy for his children who will know their dad started a movement to end school lunch debt and shaming. Lew tells his oldest child if you see something affecting you that isn’t right, or if you want to fight to make something better, don’t be afraid to try.
Lew has done so many interviews that he feels pretty comfortable in front of a camera because he’s passionate about ending school lunch debt and shaming. He did his first speaking engagement in front of 100 people, which he found “scarier” than live TV interviews. Inspired by Lew’s passion and commitment, the CEO of America’s Credit Union asked Lew to speak at a staff meeting. Lew imagined a dozen people and got an audience of 100 instead. It was nerve wracking, but his message inspired the crowd, and he raised $7,000.
Lew is blown away by the tremendous amount of media coverage by Huffington Post, CNN, all of the major television networks, radio broadcasts, and newspapers. School districts across the nation have begun their crowd funding efforts, though they haven’t received the publicity Lew has. Singer John Legend recently turned up the viral wattage by donating $5,000 to the campaign and meeting with Lew and his wife at a recent concert in King County.
Lew’s fame landed him an interview on KING 5 recently, where Lew pointed out excitedly, “I got to sit next to the great Lori Matsukawa!” Lew has watched Matsukawa since he was little, and he was thrilled. Matsukawa interviewed Lew on KING 5 after hearing about John Legend’s donation.
Despite the media attention, Lew has managed to keep his personal life private. He demurs when asked about his employer and family’s reaction to all the publicity. The safety and privacy of his family come first.
During his time in the SYLP, Lew recalls listening to leading activists like the late “Uncle” Bob Santos and Robert Maestas.
Though inspired, Lew doesn’t want to be “a protestor who marches and gets arrested.” He does, however, want to change things his own way. “I’m a family guy, born and raised in Seattle, and I love Seattle.”
“My mission is not done, and I’m fighting until there’s a permanent solution to end lunch shaming and lunch debt once and for all.” As of June 8, all four of Lew’s campaigns are near to reaching its goals, raising a total of about $91,000.
Arlene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.