- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Pennsylvania school board has rejected donations to cover parents’ debts for lunches for their children, saying the parents themselves should pay their bills.

The Wyoming Valley West School District, situated in near the Pocono Mountains in Luzerne County, had threatened to place their children in foster care if the parents didn’t pay the lunch bills, which total $22,000.

Todd Carmichael, CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee, based in Philadelphia, said his offer to cover the school lunch debt was rejected Monday in a phone conversation with Joseph Mazur, president of the Wyoming Valley West school board.

“I know what it means to be hungry,” Mr. Carmichael said. “I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food.”

According to Mr. Carmichael’s spokesperson, the district’s board president refused the gift on Monday, saying he’d prefer parents to pay the bills. As of Wednesday, Mr. Carmichael’s offer still stood, according to The Associated Press.

School district officials did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment.

The school board last week gained national headlines — as well as a rebuke from Democratic Sen. Bob Casey — when it took the unusual step of trying to settle the debt by sending hundreds of letter to parents saying children with overdue lunch bills could “be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child’s right to food” and threatened to place children in foster care.

“No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically,” Mr. Casey tweeted. “These letters were callous and should never have happened.”

The district of roughly 5,000 students sits in suburban Wilkes-Barre in northeast Pennsylvania, an area hit hard by closed coal mines.

Luzerne County officials wrote a letter to Superintendent Irvin DeRemer demanding the district stop issuing false claims and threats.

Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the school district and the letter’s author, told TV station WNEP that poverty is the root of the problem in Luzerne County.

“These parents are poor,” Mr. Muth said. “These kids are going to school. They’re trying to do the right thing.”

School district officials have said they’re running out of options to wipe clean the lunch debt.

In 2017, Pennsylvania banned what colloquially is known as “lunch shaming,” by which some schools try to persuade parents to settle lunch bills by serving children cheese sandwiches instead of hot meals or keeping them out of school activities.

A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said a study showed that 58% of districts incurred unpaid meal costs during the 2011-2012 school year.

A July 2018 memo from the Pennsylvania Department of Education discourages districts from denying meals or sending unpaid balance notices home via children. The memo also says districts can accept gifts to pay lunch debts.

It is estimated that roughly 6% of school districts contract with collection agencies for unpaid school lunch bills. The memo encouraged this tactic, saying: “Schools have found success with collecting delinquent debt by communicating with parents/guardians via text, automated calling systems, and email.”

According to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service, school lunches cost the federal government $13.66 billion annually. A family of four with an income of 130% the federal poverty level ($32,360) qualifies for free lunches. Families at or below 185% of the federal poverty level ($46,435) qualify for reduced-cost lunches.

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