Wausau man raises $26K to pay off students’ school lunch debts

Successful fundraiser cancels unpaid meal debts for students in Wausau, D.C. Everest school districts

Yauo Yang appeals for school lunch debt fundraiser
Yauo Yang of Wausau led an effort to cancel tens of thousands of dollars in school lunch debt in central Wisconsin. Screenshot courtesy of Yauo Yang

A Wausau-area pastor raised $26,000 in less than a week to pay off students’ school lunch debts in two central Wisconsin school districts.

The Rev. Yauo Yang is an Iraq War veteran and the pastor for The Cross Church in Schofield. He launched a GoFundMe fundraiser on April 10 and publicized it with posts on social media. The goal was to raise $20,000, the amount needed to pay off lunch debts accumulated by students in the Wausau School District and neighboring D.C. Everest School District. 

Yang, a parent of six kids in the district, said he knew from his own experience that sometimes his kids’ school lunch accounts can get low or go temporarily into the red.

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“Thankfully, my wife and I are in a position where we can pay off their student lunch debt,” Yang said. “But … there are other families who truly do struggle with that.”

The fundraiser attracted 344 donors who gave a total of $26,514. While there were a handful of anonymous donors who gave $500 or $1,000, most of the donations were much less. Yang said he was “overjoyed” and impressed with the community’s generosity. 

School districts offer free and reduced-price lunches to families whose income falls below $55,500 per year. But families with incomes just above that threshold may struggle to pay. 

school lunch tray with food
Laura Taylor (CC-BY-NC-ND)

As the issue of school lunch debt has gotten more attention, private donors have frequently stepped in. In 2019, donors in Green Bay, Cudahy, Eau Claire and elsewhere paid off students’ accumulated meal debts. 

During the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, additional federal funding that came as part of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic allowed districts to provide universal free meals to students. (The Waukesha School District made national headlines after it briefly became the only district in the state to decline these funds, a decision the board reversed after criticism.)

That funding expired in the fall of 2022, and some districts said they saw students begin skipping meals when universal free lunches were no longer available. In 2023, the Capital Times reported that unpaid meal debts in the Madison Metropolitan School District totaled nearly $250,000.

Democrats including Gov. Tony Evers have called on legislators to allot funding for universal school meals. Evers sought $120 million for the issue in his 2023-2025 biennial budget, but it was not included in the budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

For Yang, the issue of feeding students is personal. At school, he said, “your social economics shouldn’t impact the way you learn and the way that you’re treated.” He said he spoke from his own experience.

“I grew up in poverty, and there are times in which my family struggled to eat,” Yang said. “I just don’t think that we as an American society should ever leave our children to go hungry.”