A Pennsylvania school district apologized for sending out letters to parents threatening to send their children into foster care for as little as $10 in school lunch debt—and said that now all student lunches will be free.

By Lisa Milbrand
Updated July 25, 2019
Steve Debenport—Getty Images/iStock

School lunch debt has become a red-hot issue, with school districts taking controversial stances to try to encourage parents to pay up—giving kids who owe lunch debt subpar sandwiches, or otherwise shaming the students who owe money. But after a school district in one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania took it to a whole new extreme, a CEO stepped in to help.

Luzerne County's Wyoming Valley West School District sent out letters to parents this month suggesting that those who failed to pay up school lunch debt—as little as $10—could end up in court proceedings that result in their kids being put into foster care. 

After hearing the news, Todd Carmichael, the CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, offered to pay off the entire lunch debt. At first the district’s school board president, Joseph Mazur, reportedly declined, but has since accepted the donation. "I know what it means to be hungry. I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food," Carmichael, whose company is based in Philadelphia, wrote in a letter to local newspapers. "I worked with my team to reach out to the school district to let them know we were eager to donate the full amount outstanding."

The school district has since put out a formal apology addressed to families in the district and thanked those who offered donations. "The Wyoming Valley West School District Board of Directors sincerely apologizes for the tone of the letter that was sent regarding lunch debt. It wasn’t the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district," the letter begins. It goes on to say that the district now qualifies for Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a United States Department of Agriculture program that means breakfast and lunch will be free to all kids, regardless of their family's income.

CEP will cover meals for students for the next five years while Carmichael's donation will be used to entirely eliminate the lunch debt owed to the district.

Despite the district's apology for the letters, they had provoked an uproar, and the district had to walk it back. The Luzerne County manager David Pedri appeared on CNN this week to reassure worried parents. "Nobody's coming to take your kids in the middle of the night," he said.

Whose bright idea was this anyway? Who thought it would make sense to spend thousands of dollars on pulling children away from their parents, just because they owed money for a few school lunches—or to even create an empty threat like that to try to strong-arm families that are apparently already cash-strapped into paying up?

"Foster care is something we utilize as a shield to assist kids. It's not a sword. We don't like foster care being utilized to try to terrorize individuals," Pedri told NPR.

The school district says that it was owed $22,000 in total school lunch debt—which seems like a small price to pay to ensure that their students are fed and prepared to learn.

This was just another issue related to food insecurity that affects millions of families, and which threatens to only get worse, with the Trump administration recently announcing new regulations which will cut food stamp benefits for 3.1 million people. So it's no surprise that one of the hottest categories of pleas for help on education crowdfunding site Donors Choose is for snacks, toiletries, and lunch supplies for teachers to share with their students who often go hungry beyond that single meal that school lunch provides.

Maybe it's time that we follow the lead of some other countries (and many private schools in our own country), and provide free healthy lunches for kids. Or at the very least, simply ensure that no child feels ashamed—or terrified that they'll be ripped from their families—because they're $10 short on their school lunch bill.

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