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A fifth grader’s fundraiser cleared his school of meal debt. It named an award for him

Associated Press

As the school year drew to a close, Daken Kramer worried about children who owed money for meals at his school. So the enterprising fifth grader decided to do something about it.

Daken, 11, posted a video last month challenging friends, family, and even strangers and businesses to pay off the meal debt at Thomas Ultican Elementary School in Blue Springs, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. He was apparently convincing: He raised $7,370 — more than double his original goal of $3,500. It paid off all the debt at his school and provided nearly $4,000 to reduce meal debt at Blue Springs High School, as well.

Daken, in a phone interview Wednesday, said he simply wanted to do something nice.

“It was my last year,” the soon-to-be middle schooler said. “I just wanted to do something kind to say thank you to the school.”

Nearly 30% of the 15,000 students in the Blue Springs School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, according to state data. Even at that lower cost, some students at the district’s 20 schools can’t keep up. Overall, the district has a meal debt of around $235,000.

Nationally, the School Nutrition Association’s 2024 survey of member school districts found that the median district meal debt as of November was $5,495, up from $5,164 a year earlier. The survey found that debt amounts can reach up to about $1 million for some districts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal aid provided free school meals nationwide, but that ended in 2022. Daken’s mom, Vanessa Kramer, said she learned that the pandemic-era program was the only time some students in the district got breakfast.

“That kind of stuck with me because I grew up in a food-insecure home,” Vanessa Kramer said. “There were a lot of times that even as a high schooler, I was getting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

Daken’s video was posted April 12 on his mom’s Facebook page.

“Daken wanted to do something special as a thank you to his school, and has VERY high hopes for this project. I’m so proud of him for wanting to help others,” Vanessa wrote at the time.

When his efforts made the local news, donations began to pour in from across the country.

“Great job Daken looking out for the less fortunate in your community — you saw a problem and rose to the occasion to help,” wrote a New Jersey donor who gave $100. “You are a great leader and a role model.”

His school agreed. During fifth grade graduation May 21, Daken’s teacher, Kristi Haley, announced that an annual award will be named after him — the Daken Kramer Legacy Award — to honor students who go above and beyond.

“It’s your heart, your drive, your determination and your grit to help others that inspires us,” Haley said at the ceremony.

“It was amazing,” Daken said. “It definitely made me feel special.”

Eight states — California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont — make school meals free to all students regardless of income, even after the pandemic. Vanessa said that it would be great if Missouri joined them and that if not, maybe her son’s act of kindness can inspire others.

“I’m trying to teach my kids that if the people who have the power to make a difference won’t, it’s OK to step up and be that person that will make a difference,” Vanessa said.

Article Topic Follows: AP-National

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