Cummings pays off student lunch debt to honor his wife

Mikaila Kraus 

Contributing Writer

Cathy Cummings, photo courtesy of Sean Cummings.

The widower of Cathy Cummings, former mayor of The Village, is paying off thousands of dollars worth of school lunch debt to honor her memory. 

Sean Cummings, who owns Sean Cummings’ Irish Pub, 7628 N. May, has traveled to over 40 Oklahoma schools to pay off their students’ lunch debt. Cummings began fundraising on the website GoFundMe in February, in the days prior to her Feb. 11, 2024 death from cancer. 

Jen Nance, a family friend and organizer of the GoFundMe, said that when it became clear Cathy was dying, the Cummings received flowers and food from friends and well-wishers. But Cathy, who had a long career of public service, wanted to find a way to give back to the community. 

Cathy Cummings was mayor of The Village in Oklahoma City in 2019, and alongside her husband had been active in politics for over a decade, including running for Lieutenant Governor in 2012.

“You rarely get something accomplished – you might move the needle forward is what people call it, you might get little things done, but we wanted to look for something that might be a legacy item,” Sean Cummings said. 

The issue of school lunch debt was brought to Cummings’ attention by a friend whose son’s school refused to send his high school transcript to a college where he had received a scholarship. It wasn’t until the student went into the school office that he found out his transcript was being held due to a lunch debt of two dollars and fifty cents. 

“I’m not even sure that’s legal,” Cummings said.

High school seniors are prioritized by Cummings, as many schools have been known to hold diplomas if students have lunch debt at the time of graduation. One senior facing this punishment had accrued a negative lunch balance of $3,500. 

“To me, it’s abusive to let a kid who is not even 18 years old charge up $3,500 in debt,” said Cummings. 

Students who are unable to pay for school lunches or who have managed to accrue lunch debt may also be subjected to “lunch shaming,” which is when students are singled out for not being able to afford school lunch. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, forms of lunch shaming include stamping students’ hands to show they have lunch debt, or giving them a different meal than the students who are able to afford the hot lunch, 

“The kid sitting there with two pieces of bread and a piece of cheese, and everybody knows — how awful is that?” Nance said. 

The public response to the fundraiser was unprecedented; the initial goal was set at $15,000, and since February has increased to fifty times that number. Since Cummings’ story has received national attention, it has also caused a ripple effect where others are now starting to fundraise in order to help pay off school lunch debt, both in Oklahoma and out of state. 

“We had no idea it would go this far,” Nance said. 

Cummings receives two or three calls a day from schools wishing to have their school lunch debts paid off, and plans to continue as long as donations keep coming in. As of March second, the GoFundMe has raised eighty-four thousand dollars of a one hundred thousand dollar goal. 

“It’s a great outlet,” Cummings said. “I mean, I get to go to places, talk about my wife in a really positive way and they remember her in a positive way.” 

According to the Education Data Initiative, Oklahoma had $38,597,832 of school lunch debt in 2023.

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