This Kennewick couple paid off $10,700 of student meal debts

A Kennewick councilman and his wife spent more than $10,700 paying the lunch bills for hundreds of students who weren’t able to afford their meals.

Steve and Jessy Lee, owners of the Green2Go marijuana stores, paid off the debt in the Columbia School District in Burbank and a third of the debt in the Kennewick School District.

“I told my wife I think we’re going to do some good stuff today, and she said sure,” Lee told the Tri-City Herald. “There’s been a lack of people doing good stuff for good reasons in the news. It’s been a weird time and it seems like we need some good news right now.”

A 2018 state law doesn’t allow schools to “shame” students who can’t afford lunch. That includes providing them different food or not giving them food at all.

But that doesn’t mean the debt goes away, and their parents still owe the money.

Steve Lee, candidate, Kennewick City Council, Position 2

This leaves either the school district or parents stuck paying that bill.

Lee said he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Burbank, just southeast of Pasco, and remembered the lunch tickets and kids getting told they owed money for their meal.

“There is a lot of awkwardness when you’re poor,” he said. “We were talking about this specific give as a really fun way to give back and have a large impact. ... I’m really lucky to live this life, and I like to ask, ‘What is the coolest thing possible that I could do now.’”

Kennewick and Columbia schools

In Burbank, the Lees were able to cover the entire debt and a little more with a $2,500 donation.

The money was a surprise for Superintendent Todd Hillberg, who said ultimately the money helps families who might be worried about the debt.

“It is certainly very charitable,” he said. “It’s never happened at any school that I’ve been involved with.”

In Kennewick, the Lees had to be more discerning with their gift because they couldn’t afford the total debt on the books, an estimated $24,000.

Their $8,232 donation was a third of what’s outstanding to the school district, Lee said.

The school district worked with him to target the kids that they know should be receiving free lunch, but aren’t, or the students who haven’t been able to pay for their reduced-price lunches.

He complimented the district for being easy to work with.

“We are very grateful for the generosity of our community members who choose to support our students and their families,” district officials said. “We appreciate all those who choose to donate their time, talent and resources to benefit our school community.”

Lee asked the Finley School District about its lunch debt, but learned it doesn’t have any.

The district is part of the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free meals at schools where a majority of the students receive free or reduced price meals.

Shortly after finishing his trip around the area, Lee posted on his Facebook page along with the hashtag “#DoGoodStuffAndBragAboutIt,” a message that he hopes will spread.

Often, he said, it seems people feel like it’s bad to talk about doing something nice for someone else.

He wants people to feel comfortable talking about giving to charities or helping others because it sets an example and shows that the world is not as bad as it may seem.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.