Teacher's TikTok plea helps clear thousands of dollars in school lunch debt

A Utah middle school teacher has used the power of TikTok trends to raise more than $31,000 for students who owe lunch debt in his district.

Garrett Jones, who teaches seventh and eighth graders in Heber City, Utah, said it all started when he noticed the TikTok trend of people saying, "If someone would Venmo me a dollar I could ________."

"A lot of it was like, ‘pay for my wedding,' ‘take my kids to Disneyland,' ‘take six months off of work,'" he told FOX TV Stations in an interview. 

READ MORE: Family raises over $250,000 for pizza delivery worker who fell on their porch

Jones, however, asked his followers for $1 donations to pay the outstanding lunch fees for every student at his school, "because the last thing a kid should be worrying about is how much they owe for meals at a place they’re legally obligated to be," his video said.

"I kind of did it as a joke at first. I just thought it would be cool to put a more meaningful or positive spin on that trend," Jones recalled.

When he first had the idea, Jones thought he could raise "$200 or $300 and maybe be able to help a couple of students."

"I’d be thrilled with that, just helping a couple," he said.


Rocky Mountain Middle School teacher Garrett Jones and his broadcasting class (Garrett Jones)

But Jones’ plea resonated with people — by the thousands — and quickly took off. In all, he’s raised $31,000, mostly from $1, $2 and $5 donations. Jones is hopeful it’s enough to make a big dent in the overall balance district wide.

"Based on the comments I got, a lot of people identified with that kid who owes money," he said. "They were saying things like, ‘This was me. Thank you so much for helping these kids, because it was me that had to go home and take the slip to my parents, and a lot of times I would just hide it because they were so stressed about money that I didn’t want to add to it.

"I think a lot of people related to it."

READ MORE: ‘Honestly, so amazed’: Watch seventh-grade student win $10k after scoring 4 shots in under 25 seconds

For the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, all students at Jones’ middle school were receiving free lunch as part of a federal program that covered lunches for 50 million students. The program ended last year.

Jones said he didn’t know exactly how much students at his school owed when he posted the video, but he knew it was a problem because he’s often tasked with handing balance slips to students who have lunch debt.


Garrett Jones 

No student will be denied a meal if they don’t have the money, Jones said, but cafeteria workers will remind them if they have a balance. For some kids, the fear of being told in front of their peers is enough for them to skip lunch altogether.

"Middle school is a really hard time for a lot of these kids already, they’re just kind of going through their day trying to not be detected. They’re trying to not stand out in any way," Jones said.

READ MORE: 82-year-old Walmart employee retires after viral TikTok leads to $100,000 GoFundMe

Although Jones has been humbled by the incredible response, he recognizes it’s "obviously a band-aid."

"This is awesome, and we’re going to be able to help a lot of kids in my district, but this is just my district," he said. "This is a problem all over the place."


Rocky Mountain Middle School teacher Garrett Jones and his broadcasting class (Garrett Jones)

Jones said one way people can help is by calling their own school districts, asking if school lunch debt is a problem and if so, how they can help. He also encourages people to contact their representatives and let them know if they support universal free lunch.

"There’s pretty widespread support for the idea that kids should be fed," he added. "We can’t agree on much right now, but I think that’s something we can agree on."