It’s Not Just Lunch

A Florida agent who paid off student lunch debt at a local school says what started as a simple act of kindness has come back to him in unexpected ways.
child with lunch tray

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Editor’s Note: Over Thanksgiving weekend, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman made national news when he paid off student lunch debt at a middle school in Santa Clara, Calif. Back in August, Jupiter, Fla., REALTOR® Andrew Levy was inspired to do the same. Here’s Levy’s story.

Andrew Levy logged into his computer recently and saw an inquiry pop up via the agent contact form on his website. A smile crept onto his face as he read the message, which had nothing to do with a potential buyer or seller.

“Thank you, Andrew, for setting an amazing example for all of us!” the message read. “Florida is my new home, and I was feeling lost in how to become active in the community when I heard your story.” The writer said Levy had inspired her to begin giving regularly to those in need in her own community.

“I’ve gotten at least 10 lead inquiries like this from my real estate website,” says Levy, an agent with Echo Fine Properties in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “I’ve been getting phone calls from all over America—fathers, mothers, grandmothers. I can’t tell you how many people posted how I helped them get over that hump of faith in humanity. You hear that and it changes your day.”

Just a few months earlier, Levy had made a life-changing discovery while perusing several social media pages he follows to stay abreast of happenings in his Jupiter, Fla., community. He saw a Facebook post about families in the local school district who were unable to pay for their children’s lunches. As a result, the school district’s school lunch debt had risen to $944.34.

“I was like, whoa, that’s just terrible,” Levy says by telephone from his Florida home. “If I can solve that problem with writing a check, I’m going to do it. I’ve had some very good fortune in Jupiter, and I want to pay it back to the community.”

Levy decided to learn more about the problem to see how he could best help. “I went to the Food Services Management Department for Palm Beach County and introduced myself. I said I’d like to discuss the Jupiter school debt, and I’d like to pay it off. They were stunned,” Levy says.

When Giving Comes Naturally

Giving and working for the betterment of community comes naturally to Levy, who was raised in the small village of Brookville, N.Y., on Long Island.

“My father was very involved with children’s mental health,” says Levy. His father, Bernard Levy, who died in 2010, was known as a business leader and founding member of Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on early childhood development. “The spirit of giving has always been in our family. My mother and father always said to my brothers and me, ‘When you have the time or money to do something, just do it. Don’t postpone doing something great for someone else.’”

If the spirit of giving was instilled early in Levy, his love of real estate began just as early.

“When I was a kid, I loved the real estate section. The real estate section in the Sunday New York Times would always be sticky with strawberry jam or grape jelly,” says Levy. When he and his wife moved to Florida in 2014, the former marketing professional thought, “I have a chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” and that was to sell real estate.

His work, he soon realized, “really affected buyers. It changed buyers’ lives. I would see it at the closing table. After the first year, I was like, wow, I’m making a difference.”

Levy felt the tug of making a difference in August when he saw the Facebook post about the school lunch debt. “I privately messaged [the author] to make sure what the post meant. I said, ‘I’m going to do something about it.’”

A National Problem

School lunch debt is an issue that plagues school districts across the country. According to the School Nutrition Association, three-quarters of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017–2018 school year.

While children from low-income families can receive assistance through free or reduced lunches, not all families are deemed eligible. In fact, school lunch debt is most commonly present among districts with a low prevalence of free or reduced-price meals, according to the SNA.

Experts have said for families with more than one child, the average lunch cost of $2.48 a day for an elementary school student can become burdensome, which kicks off the cycle of lunch debt.

A Campaign to Make a Difference

In addition to paying off the school district’s debt, Levy set up a GoFundMe in hopes of securing funds to continue to pay for lunches for those Jupiter students who are unable to pay. The response has been overwhelming, he says, with donations coming in from all over the country. Local and national media have converged on his door to tell his story. He has seen headlines from as far away as Vietnam.

To date, Levy has raised more than $4,000, including during an intermission at a local comedy show. “One of the comedians [performing in the show] called me and said I’d like you to talk at intermission. He put a hat near the exit and [by the end] the hat was overflowing,” Levy says. In another instance, he attended a college alumni gathering and, when recognized, his fellow alumni offered to dig into their pockets and donate as well.

Over the past year, the National Association of REALTORS®’ consumer advertising campaign has highlighted the REALTOR® difference, giving consumers a picture of the special commitment NAR members have to their communities and to the NAR Code of Ethics. Levy’s story is a perfect example.

“People are programmed to think real estate agents are just out there for the deal,” says Levy, who adds that he takes great interest in keeping abreast of community happenings “because I’m a REALTOR®. That’s what real estate is about. It’s the essence of what we do and how we affect the community.”