Widower pays off school lunch debts statewide, honoring late wife's legacy

Sean Cummings and his late wife, Cathy. (Credit: Sean Cummings)

When Sean Cummings' wife, Cathy, died from cancer in February, he thought giving back to his community would be the best way to honor her memory and legacy. 

The 65-year-old widower of The Village, Oklahoma, is on a mission to pay off school lunch debts for students across the state. 

So far, more than $80,000 has helped thousands of students in 26 school districts since Cummings started his quest shortly after his wife died. The majority of the funds are being raised through a GoFundMe page

With both being in business and politically aware, Cummings said he and his wife of 23 years came up with the plan in her last days. 

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"We were honestly, like a lot of people, just unaware that children at the end of the year would accrue this lunch debt," Cummings to FOX Television Stations. "Then it rolls over to the next year."

The couple originally started with seniors out of concern schools would withhold their transcripts over unpaid debts, potentially affecting any scholarships. They came to realize schools were unable to legally do that. 

Cummings said when he visits schools, he usually talks with a school administrator or faculty member about paying off debts. He doesn't meet the students who are in need because of privacy concerns. 

The majority of the individual debts usually range from $50 to $100. A few have been more than $200. 

Cummings said with each gift he thinks of his late wife. 

"I know she would be thrilled and very proud that this is what we've done to start developing her legacy," he added. 

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"I never expected to be in this position," he continued. "But since I am, I have the choice to either let it take me down to places I don't want to go and depression areas I don't want to be, or I can go find some positive way to express my emotions." 

Cummings said he would love to continue his mission outside of Oklahoma, but he doesn't personally know any other areas where high school lunch debt is problematic. 

A 2023 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that U.S. school districts had more than $19 million in unpaid meal debt, with the highest amounts being reported in the Midwest and Great Plains.

This story was reported from Los Angeles.