The issue of “school lunch debt” prompted heated debates in July 2019, thanks in part to an ongoing controversy in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.
The topic of incurring debt for school lunches in the Pennsylvania county came to national attention around July 20 2019, when multiple news organizations reported on letters received by families in the district. The letters claimed that families with accrued school lunch debt could have their children taken away and placed in foster care for neglect:
Dozens of families in Pennsylvania received an alarming letter from their public school district [in July 2019] informing parents that if their kid’s lunch debt was not settled, their child could be removed from their home and placed in foster care.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” said the letter signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District. “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.”
In an interview with NPR, the president of the district’s board of education Joseph Mazur defended the decision after it made national news, and stated that no child was denied food:
“I think you have to pay your bills. 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,” Mazur said.
Mazur emphasized that despite some students not having enough money to afford breakfast and lunch, the school district still fed all the children.
“Every poor kid got a meal,” Mazur said. “If the Board of Directors was mean and cruel they’d just honestly say, ‘Stop the lunches,’ but we didn’t.”
Local lawmakers called the letter cruel:
Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania called that logic callous.
“No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically,” Casey said.
Although representatives for the district stood by the letters, local child welfare authorities expressed disdain when contacted by the media. In the same article, an attorney representing the school hinted that economically depressed families were spending money on cigarettes and alcohol instead of food:
“This to me is terrorizing children and families. And it was just so unnecessary,” Luzerne County Children and Youth Services director Joanne Van Saun said.
Van Saun says the letter wrongly assumes all families can pay. She pointed to a letter sent to a mother who owed $75.
“Where did that $75 go? Is it going to cigarettes? Is it going to alcohol? We don’t know. That’s right, we don’t know that,” [Wyoming Valley West solicitor Charlie] Coslett added.
In response to national outcry, local child welfare representatives told both the district and the media that the letters’ claims were a gross misrepresentation of their system:
Child welfare authorities have told the district that Luzerne County does not run its foster system that way.
Luzerne County’s manager and child welfare agency director wrote to Superintendent Irvin DeRemer, demanding the district stop making what it called false claims. DeRemer has not returned messages in recent days.
On July 22 2019, CNN interviewed county child welfare representatives who once again expressed their frustration at the district’s actions:
People in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, were shocked last week when a local school district sent hundreds of letters telling parents who owed lunch money for their children to pay up or else the kids could go into foster care, County Manager David Pedri said.
“Nobody’s coming to take your kids in the middle of the night,” he assured them [July 22 2019] on “CNN Newsroom.”
“Luzerne County foster care will never take a kid for not paying school debt,” Pedri said.
Pedri, who oversees the foster care system in the county, wrote in an email to CNN that Luzerne County has asked the school district to “cease and desist with this type of language.”
“The foster care system should never be viewed as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families,” he said.
“Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed,” he said, “when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy.”
The Wyoming Valley West School District has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
As the controversy continued, a local businessman contacted the district in an attempt to settle lunch debt. In a letter to a local newspaper, CEO Todd Carmichael said that his offer to settle the entire outstanding amount was refused outright by Mazur:
As a child, I received free meals at school when my mother struggled to make ends meet. I know what it means to be hungry. I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food. But I’ve also had success in the food and beverage industry: I started a small coffee company in Pennsylvania that has grown into a national brand.
Food is at the center of my being, so I had to do something.
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, reported as $22,467. On Monday, we talked to School Board President Joseph Mazur to determine the best way to transfer the funds in order to wipe the slate clean and restore dignity to the 1,000 families who received these threatening letters.
Shockingly, Mr. Mazur turned us down. I can’t explain or justify his actions. Let me be clear: we offered over $22,000 with no strings attached. And he said “No.”
Not only was Mr. Mazur callous and cruel in his refusal, but he also bucked his fiduciary responsibility to the school district that elected him to serve. Quite literally, he turned away funding.
Mr. Mazur, I am offering to pay this debt in full. By saying no, you are not just shaming families who elected you, but you are placing this burden on WVW taxpayers, and that is completely unfair.
A spokesperson for Carmichael claimed Mazur reasoned that the families were able to afford, but not willing to pay the debts; Mazur has not commented:
Todd Carmichael, co-founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee, offered to give Wyoming Valley West School District $22,000 to cover the bills that led to the warning letter, Carmichael spokesperson Aren Platt told CBS News [July 23 2019].
But according to Platt, school board president Joseph Mazur rejected the offer during a phone conversation Monday. Platt said Mazur said the parents who owe the money can afford to pay it, and it should not be covered by Carmichael.
Coslett did address the offer, saying it would be “lawful“:
Board Solicitor Charles Coslett, who drew criticism from some for defending the foster care threat, said he has not heard of Mazur’s alleged refusal.
He did say he thinks the district can accept donations.
“Anyone can answer for the debt of another. It would be lawful,” Coslett said.
As of July 24 2019, Carmichael’s offer (one among several) had not been accepted, and the issue of school lunch debt in the Pennsylvania country remained unsettled.
Update, July 25 2019, 4:17 PM: In an undated letter published to the Wyoming Valley West School District website [PDF], Mazur acknowledged the district reversed course and accepted Carmichael’s offer to clear the outstanding school lunch debt. It read:
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.
We would like to acknowledge Mr. Todd Carmichael’s generous offer. We have been in touch with Michael Plaksin, president of the Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation (previously established to benefit the students of our district). After discussions with Mr. Plaksin and all members of the Wyoming Valley West School Board, we have decided to accept Mr. Carmichael’s generous donation. It will be directed to the Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation to eliminate the debt owed by the parents.
Wyoming Valley West School District followed all USDA and PDE regulations. All meals served to students were chosen by the students from our regular menu. No shaming occurred and no alternate meals were provided.
Again, please accept our sincere apology for any harm or inconvenience the letter caused.
Update, September 23 2020, 11:50 AM: On September 22 2020, a screenshot of a July 2019 tweet about the controversy was shared to r/facepalm (later r/all), in a thread titled “We should find ways of helping the poor not make their lives more miserable”:
As commenters noted, the Luzerne County lunch debt controversy was more than a year old at the time.