It is, to still somehow understate things, an incredibly difficult time to be a teacher. Around the country, many schools are set to reopen this fall, but with covid-19 case numbers continuing to soar, danger will inevitably lurk in familiar halls. What will happen once class is in session? Will things even get that far? For now, one high school teacher, Zachary “Jaychalke” McCarter, is focusing on injustices he can actually do something about—namely, the quiet ravages of lunch debt.
Lunch debt is a serious issue in the United States. At many schools, kids (and their families) remain on the hook for all meals they eat, regardless of their ability to pay. Nearly 30 million children rely on free or reduced-price lunches, but in order to qualify for them, their families’ incomes must hover between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty line.
However, for many families who do not qualify, the cost of meals (typically a few dollars per day) adds up quickly. According to a 2019 Aljazeera piece on the issue, a high school student can rack up around $770 in annual bills on breakfast and lunch—enough to strain low- and middle-income families past the breaking point. With covid-19 leaving millions unemployed, many families are in dire straits, an issue at least slightly alleviated by lunch pickup programs that allow people to obtain free lunches from whichever school is closest without providing proof of low-income status. But now, though school systems are pushing the federal government to keep that program going through the fall, it’s on the verge of lapsing, with little hope of renewal from Trump’s Agriculture Department. Lunch debt, then, stands to punch a bigger hole in families’ incomes than ever.
McCarter, who used to teach in Oklahoma, but who recently moved to Omaha, Nebraska and is set to begin teaching German at a high school in the area this fall, takes issue with the whole system.
“When I went to high school, I sometimes didn’t eat because I didn’t want to put my family in debt—I would always just skip lunch and just wait until I got home,” McCarter told Kotaku over a Discord voice call. “In my classroom, I have food in my cabinets so that when students come in who did not have a lunch, I can at least provide them with food. I would tell them, ‘Don’t feel bad at all because I know what it’s like to be hungry—the agitation that comes with it, the inattentiveness, the inability to pay attention in class that some teachers might misinterpret as you just not caring. I know how it is, and you can totally trust me—come into my classroom, get some food, and completely go about your day as if it never happened.’”
McCarter, who also regularly streams on Twitch, recently realized that he could do even more. Last week, he organized and ran a charity speedrun marathon called All Kids Deserve To Eat 2020. He aimed to raise $13,000 so as to completely wipe out the lunch debt of an elementary school in Ralston, Nebraska. He and the speedrunners he collaborated with blew past that goal, raising over $16,000 by the time it was all said and done.
Initially, All Kids Deserve To Eat was just going to be a 24-hour stream, but despite the fact that lunch debt often goes unremarked on in the labyrinthine nightmare bureaucracy that is America, McCarter was heartened to discover that a whole, whole lot of people cared.
“I set it up as something that people could sign up for that I would host on my channel for 24 hours,” he said. “It had so many submissions that I thought, ‘How about I break this into two days for 15 hours each?’ After that first day, it was beyond my wildest dreams of what we had raised at the time. I unlocked a third day, and we still started smashing goals that we had. So I opened up a fourth day that ended up being a 26-hour stream. So it was like a fifth day as well.”
All Kids Deserve To Eat unfolded almost like a miniature Games Done Quick event, with commentary, races, and donation incentives. It even included an infamous GDQ moment: the “save-kill” portion of Super Metroid, during which runners, fleeing from an exploding planet Zebes, must decide whether to save innocent animals who’ve helped Samus during her journey or shave a few precious screen frames off their runtimes. Tradition mandates that donators choose. McCarter sprinkled multiple Super Metroid runs throughout All Kids Deserve To Eat, so the animals, at least, died for a good cause.
“The save-kill donation incentive alone raised over $6,000,” said McCarter. “That was pretty mind-blowing.”
Other streamers and speedrunners joined in because they, too, know what it’s like to go hungry and don’t want to see kids and families impacted by that.
“I decided to help with this event because I have had financial issues in the past and have had to fight to pay for my own children’s lunches,” streamer Joshua “Unknownavailability” Weekley, who both provided graphical layouts for the marathon and ran a randomized version of Final Fantasy IV, told Kotaku in an email. “This cause just seemed to make sense, because there was nothing like it for such an obvious issue... It was a no-brainer for sure.”
“When I found out it was to eliminate school lunch debt, I knew I had to help get [McCarter] to his goal and participate,” streamer Cinaeth Gaming, who ran Levelhead, Celeste, and Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, and helped with production and commentary, told Kotaku in an email. “There are a few reasons behind that: The first is I personally did have some trouble buying food while I was younger, though not during my school career. The second was I knew we could do something very special that would inspire people as other online gaming charities have done.”
McCarter also said that some Omaha-area teachers and a couple students from the school he’ll be teaching at this fall popped into his chat: “I’ve been on the local news, and they saw that and were able to come into my channel and say, ‘Hey, I love what you’re doing.’”
McCarter is thrilled that the event was such a success, but it’s bittersweet: After all, in a country as wealthy as the United States, a charity event like this really shouldn’t even be necessary.
“It’s tough because the fact that I had to do this charity in this first place is saddening,” he said. “My goal in life, and my motto, is that we talk about lunch debt in the past tense. Like, we think about it and go ‘Whoa, do you remember when elementary school students had to pay to eat the meal they might depend on at school? And they were shamed or otherwise prevented from doing things [if they didn’t]?’”
He hopes to push for progress in that direction by turning All Kids Deserve To Eat into a larger organization that will host an annual event on Twitch, as well as other initiatives.
“We’re actually going to be establishing All Kids Deserve To Eat as a nonprofit organization,” he said. “The biggest reason for that is, you look around at the different NPOs, and there really isn’t anything that focuses on lunch, specifically. There are great organizations for other things education-related related to feeding children, but I wanted something that focused on that lunch aspect.”
It’s a lofty goal. First, though, he’s got to get through a nerve-wrackingly uncertain school year. It won’t be easy, and it might end up endangering him, as well as kids he’s teaching—especially those from low-income families that are disproportionately impacted by issues like lunch debt. For now, though, McCarter is just focusing on what he can do for his students.
“It’s possible that we could start school, and things could get so much worse that we might close down and go virtual again,” he said. “I’m just gonna try and do my best. I’m always, always wanting to do my best for the kids, because they’re what matters. My personal opinion on things, I can think about that at home. But the moment I step into that classroom with my students, they’re what matters.”