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July 24, 2019; US News and World Report and Philadelphia Inquirer

It was a war of narratives.

“Let’s just take care of the kids,” La Colombe coffee CEO Todd Carmichael said after his attempts to pay off student lunch debt in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West school district were rebuffed. The school has since apologized and will be accepting the donation through their foundation.

On July 9th, the school board sent a letter to families that owed school lunch money—collectively, over $20,000. The letter threatened, “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.”

Many in the community were either terrified or outraged by the letter and its implications toward families in their district. Luzerne County Manager David Pedri said to NPR, “The foster care system should never be viewed as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families.” Pedri’s asked the board to not use that language in future letters.

A lawyer from the area, Bill Vinsko, noted that households in the district struggle to keep up with low-wage jobs. He also pointed out that “not being able to pay for school cafeteria meals on a timely basis would likely not meet the state’s legal definition of neglect, so a prosecution over a lunch bill would not be likely.”

In fact, the process of having a child taken away and put into foster care via Dependency Court is pretty involved. Removal typically happens after a hearing, meaning the letter issued a preemptive verdict, using authoritative language they did not have permission to use.

The letter drew national backlash. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Senator Bob Casey came out against the cruel letter, and its infamy brought the issue to Carmichael’s attention. Carmichael offered to pay the debt in full via an anonymous donation, according to the Inquirer, but was denied the chance to assist by school board president Joseph Mazur. Mazur said he believed the families could afford it, though the Inquirer also reports that 64 percent of the district’s students live below the poverty line.

Carmichael took to the media once his donation was denied, showing the letters were nothing more than a shaming attempt by school board members. By taking to the media, the district and its infamous letter drew more opprobrium.

According to an article from US News and World Report, State Rep. Aaron Kaufer had enough of the backlash and met with school officials to tell them they would accept Carmichael’s donation money through the district’s foundation, an organization independent of the board.

“We needed to get back to focusing on education,” Kaufer said.

The school district has since issued an apology and a few excuses. “It wasn’t the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families in our school district,” the letter says. The school board has also subsequently asked for the resignation of board member and solicitor Charles Coslett, according to FOX 56. Coslett was among those who decided to send the letters; according to the Inquirer story, his public comment on the issue was, “It’s not our obligation. This nanny-state mentality is troubling to me.”

Beginning next year, the school district has enough funding to feed all students in the district regardless of income, according to US News. Minnesota US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar introduced a bill on July 19th to end school lunch shaming practices and introduced a voucher system that would pay schools back for providing free meals to students.

In other parts of the country, like Denver, communities aren’t just worried about all kids having food to eat—they want to make sure all kids have access to healthy food. At the end of 2018, NPQ covered a program in Denver meant to address the state’s increasing childhood hunger statistic. The ordinance, placed on the ballot by Healthy Food for Denver Kids campaign, was approved by 59 percent of voters. The ordinance raised taxes to provide funding to Denver groups providing healthy food to children of families with lower incomes.

Being on a school board establishes a responsibility to the well-being of the students they oversee. This responsibility is meant to be free from the judgment, verdict, and tone of a debt collector. While Wyoming Valley West was shamed into stepping back from their cruelty, perhaps they need to acknowledge that local poverty is a real force in the lives of the children they are charged with teaching.—Sarah Miller