“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
This statement is from a letter Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District sent to 1,000 parents. At issue? An outstanding, overall balance of $20,000 on unpaid school lunches.
Coming to the rescue was Todd Carmichael, chief executive officer and co-founder of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee. Carmichael offered to pay the bill in full. School Board President, Joseph Mazur, rejected his overture.
The reasoning behind Mazur declining the offer? He believes the parents can pay.
“Hopefully, that gets their attention and it certainly did, didn’t it?” Wyoming Valley West’s lawyer, Charles Coslett, said to WYOU-TV. “I mean, if you think about it, you’re here this morning because some parents cried foul because he or she doesn’t want to pay a debt attributed to feeding their kids. How shameful.”
The Luzerne County Child Welfare has requested the school district, via Superintendent Irvin DeRemer, cease such threats, which are not in keeping with the Children and Youth Services Department of its foster care program.
In response, the school district is looking for other legal avenues to retrieve the debt, including placing liens on properties and filing district court complaints.
Then there was Carmichael’s offer of $22,000. “I know what it means to be hungry,” he wrote in a letter to Wyoming Valley West School District. “I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food.”
Carmichael isn’t the only good Samaritan to step in when overdue school lunch bills have caused issues. Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya paid $50,000 to Warwick Public Schools in Providence, Rhode Island to cover the students’ $77K lunch debt. Then there was nine-year-old Ryan Kyote from Napa, California, who used his allowance to pay off his classmates’ $74.80 lunch debt.
Prior to Carmichael’s offer, Mazur defended the letter to NPR. “I think you have to pay your bills,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. I mean, sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they’re taken care of.”
The Wyoming Valley West School District has not yet responded to Parentology’s request for an interview. However, in answer to questions about Mazur’s non-response to the offer, Coslett said, “I don’t know what my client’s intention is at this point. That’s the end of the line.”
Not if Carmichael has anything to say about it. His $22,000 remains on the table. In a phone interview with AP News, Carmichael was quoted as saying, “I’m just going to hold on and I’m going to continue to be optimistic and see if we can’t do something.”
His question: “Why prevent it?”
Recently, the schools considered serving students with unpaid lunch bills peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. However, per Joseph Muth, the district’s federal programs director, the school district had received legal advice against doing so.
As the new school year approaches, Wyoming Valley West is qualified to receive funding for free student lunches. No word yet as to whether they will they accept the funding.
Wyoming Valley West Lunch Letter Sources
AP News: CEO: Schools Reject Offers to Pay Students Late Lunch Fees
AP News: Parents Told They Could Lose Kids Over Unpaid School Lunches
CNN: Pennsylvania Tells Parents To Pay Their Lunch Debt Or Their Kids Will Go Into Foster Care