A school district threatened parents over lunch debt. Now, a CEO says it refused his offer to pay

National News

Courtesy of CBS

Pa. (CBS) — A Pennsylvania school district was criticized last week after sending threatening letters to parents over their children’s school lunch debt. This week, a CEO said the district refused his offer to cover the cost.

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 Tuesday.

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.

“I said, irrespective of ability to pay we want to cover it,” Platt said. “He said no and hung up.”

According to a letter obtained by CBS Scranton affiliate WYOU, parents were told to pay the balance owed for their child’s lunches or risk being reported to Luzerne County dependency court.

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter said. “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.”

The letter goes on to say that their child could be at risk of being placed in foster care if the parents go to court. It asks parents to pay the debt in order to avoid being reported to authorities.

“I know what it means to be hungry,” Carmichael wrote in a letter to local papers Monday. “I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food.” He said that his offer still stands if the school district wants to reconsider.

However, Luzerne County officials said they absolutely would not remove children from their homes over unpaid lunch bills, WYOU reports.

“I found it very disturbing. Luzerne County Children and Youth Services executive director Joanne Van Saun told the station. “Upsetting. It’s a total misrepresentation, a gross misrepresentation of what our agency does.”

The county is asking the school district to retract the letter. According to the district, a new letter will be sent to parents that no longer uses scare tactics to request payment.

School lunch debts are affecting families across the country and have recently gained national attention. In May, after a Rhode Island school district reversed its decision to start serving cold sandwiches instead of hot lunches to students whose families owe lunch money, Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya offered to pay off their debts. And in June, a 9-year-old boy in Napa, California, used his allowance to pay off classmates’ school lunch debts.

It’s even becoming an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign.

“‘School lunch debt’ should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter. “When we are in the White House, we are going to provide year-round, free universal school meals.”

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