Pennsylvania school lunch debt furor ends with an apology and an announcement: free lunch for all

A school district in Pennsylvania sent letters to 1,000 parents claiming that their unpaid bills for school lunches could result in their children going to foster care.

Posted: Jul 25, 2019 10:20 PM
Updated: Jul 25, 2019 10:20 PM

A cash-strapped school district in Pennsylvania's coal country has reversed course on its controversial approach to settling the lunch debt of several students.

The Wyoming Valley West School District issued an online apology Wednesday for sending letters to parents earlier this month that threatened to put children in foster care if lunch money debts were not paid. Not only did the school board sincerely apologize "for the tone of the letter," it also decided to accept the "generous offer" of a benefactor who offered to pay the school lunch debts, the apology note stated.

At the same time, the school district announced that it now qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision, a USDA Food and Nutrition Service program

"As a result, all students of the Wyoming Valley West School District will receive free breakfast and lunch in all of our schools for the next five years regardless of income," according to the Wyoming Valley West School Board.

The program "allows the nation's highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications," according to the agency's website.

A letter threatened parents with foster care

Earlier in July, the district had sent about 1,000 letters to parents who owed money for school lunches, CNN affiliate WNEP reported: "You can be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child's right to food. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care."

Joseph Muth, the author of the scalding letter and director of federal programs, told WNEP that Wyoming Valley West is owed more than $22,000 by roughly 1,000 students. Parents who received the letter of last resort had been contacted numerous times by phone, email and other letters, he said.

Not everyone saw the necessity for such threats. "I think the person that wrote that letter should think about having their children away from him and put into a foster home," Jack Coslett told WNEP at the time. "Very extreme, maybe unnecessary, maybe cruel and brutal on the government's part," said Ruth Bates.

The furor sparked national headlines and when news reached Todd Carmichael, co-founder and CEO of La Colombe Coffee in Philadelphia, he offered to pay the debt in full. The school district received about 100 additional offers from donors all over the country, school board officials told WNEP at the time.

School Board President Joseph Mazur first refused Carmichael's offer but then reconsidered and accepted shortly thereafter. Carmichael told CNN through his spokesman Aren Platt that he expects "the funds will be used as intended."

The apology note not only announced the acceptance of Carmichael's donation but also addressed some of the misconceptions that followed the original threatening letter: "No student was ever denied a meal for lack of payment... No shaming occurred and no alternate meals were provided."

All federal and state regulations were followed, the school board stated: "It wasn't the intention of the district to harm or inconvenience any of the families of our school district."

The Wyoming Valley West School District is located along the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, which has a population of more than 320,000 people, about 140 miles west of New York City and 120 miles north of Philadelphia. "The communities are primarily residential with light industry and retail stores as the district's tax base," according to the school district's website.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 72254

Reported Deaths: 3023
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion15503725
Lake7447274
Elkhart476082
Allen3789161
St. Joseph337381
Hamilton2668105
Vanderburgh188813
Hendricks1833106
Cass17749
Johnson1719118
Porter126639
Clark117846
Tippecanoe117711
Madison91565
LaPorte88330
Howard87265
Kosciusko84012
Marshall77122
Bartholomew76647
Floyd76045
Monroe72230
Delaware70152
Dubois67612
Boone66246
Noble65929
Hancock64138
Vigo58610
Jackson5725
Warrick57030
LaGrange55610
Shelby54227
Grant52130
Dearborn49328
Morgan45934
Clinton4093
Henry37320
Wayne35410
White35410
Montgomery34821
Lawrence33627
Decatur33232
Harrison32123
Putnam2868
Miami2672
Daviess26320
Scott26310
Greene24634
Franklin23813
Jasper2272
DeKalb2264
Jennings22012
Gibson2144
Steuben2063
Ripley1977
Fayette1837
Perry18112
Carroll1772
Starke1767
Posey1670
Orange16624
Wabash1633
Wells1622
Fulton1612
Jefferson1552
Whitley1506
Knox1490
Tipton1336
Spencer1313
Washington1311
Huntington1213
Newton11510
Randolph1154
Clay1095
Sullivan1031
Adams952
Jay860
Owen841
Pulaski761
Rush744
Brown731
Fountain682
Blackford622
Ohio624
Benton600
Pike520
Parke511
Vermillion500
Switzerland450
Crawford440
Martin430
Union370
Warren221
Unassigned0202

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 98675

Reported Deaths: 3652
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin18006522
Cuyahoga13269498
Hamilton9493253
Lucas5207321
Montgomery422991
Summit3486220
Marion291945
Butler286163
Mahoning2502255
Pickaway238042
Stark1783139
Warren174238
Lorain171378
Columbiana163460
Trumbull1500106
Fairfield133231
Delaware127319
Licking122449
Clark113314
Lake108738
Wood101358
Clermont90211
Medina89635
Miami81938
Tuscarawas77214
Portage74661
Allen71844
Greene66212
Belmont61426
Richland59611
Mercer59113
Erie56427
Ashtabula55946
Geauga55244
Wayne52558
Ross4504
Huron3935
Darke38527
Ottawa37126
Sandusky36816
Athens3561
Hancock3553
Madison35310
Holmes3276
Lawrence2670
Auglaize2446
Union2371
Scioto2221
Muskingum2211
Jefferson2192
Putnam20217
Washington20022
Knox1997
Seneca1963
Coshocton1906
Shelby1864
Preble1802
Crawford1725
Morrow1682
Hardin16112
Champaign1592
Clinton1586
Highland1481
Fulton1471
Logan1452
Wyandot1428
Ashland1403
Defiance1394
Williams1323
Brown1262
Perry1213
Guernsey1167
Henry1152
Hocking1159
Carroll1105
Fayette1100
Monroe9118
Pike760
Jackson730
Van Wert711
Paulding650
Gallia621
Adams592
Meigs360
Vinton302
Morgan250
Harrison241
Noble160
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 81°
Angola
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 63°
Feels Like: 81°
Huntington
Few Clouds
80° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 62°
Feels Like: 81°
Decatur
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 61°
Feels Like: 79°
Van Wert
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 79°
Sunny, Seasonable Saturday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events