For kids in a Pennsylvania school district, the aphorism that there is no such thing as a free lunch will feel a little less true for the next five years, and all it took was almost being taken away from their families.
It’s been a wild week in Kingston, Pennsylvania as the local school district has gotten national attention for their threat to have parents’ children taken away to foster care over unpaid school lunch debts. Now, students in the Wyoming Valley West School District won’t need to worry about those debts again.
The District posted an online apology letter Wednesday in which it apologized for the “tone” of its letter to parents whose children had outstanding debts for school lunches. The school district also announced that all students, regardless of income, would be provided with free breakfast and lunch for the next five years as part of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service program’s Community Eligibility Provision.
Earlier this month, around 40 families received letters from the school district notifying them that their child’s lunch debts had gone unpaid too long, and the consequences for continuing to fail to pay for school lunches would be dire.
“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 read. “At this time, please remit payments as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities.”
The letter was immediately denounced by the Luzerne County leadership, who oversee local foster care operations that the school district threatened to turn custody of children over to.
“This isn’t what we do, this isn’t who we are,” County Manager David Pedri said. “This letter was used to weaponize and terrorize, and to strike fear in parents to pay bills. In no way, shape or form are we the boogeyman coming to take your kids away in the middle of the night.”
Following national coverage of the situation in the Wyoming Valley West School District, offers to donate to the district to cover school debts poured in. At least five donors stepped forward to offer to cover the entire $22,000 in lunch debts accrued by students district-wide. The district initially refused those donations. Todd Carmichael, CEO of the Philadelphia-based coffee roaster La Colombe, called the school district directly about covering the debts. Carmichael said the district quickly became combative and eventually hung up on him.
“This really isn’t about the money,” he told NPR. “I think it’s about teaching people who are struggling some sort of moral lesson they need to learn, no matter what the consequences are.”
But shortly after another wave of national criticism, the district changed course and accepted Carmichael’s donation to cover the outstanding debts. This announcement, like the apology and announcement of free breakfast and lunch for five years, was made Wednesday.
The program the Wyoming Valley West School District announced it qualified for, the Community Eligibility Provision, is a program targeted to the poorest school districts nationwide. It allows schools in these impoverished areas to provide nutrition at no cost to students and families without the hassle, or stigma, of applying for the Free and Reduced School Lunches program.
What happened in Wyoming Valley West is actually a great trial run for a plan from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who wants to roll out free school meals and school lunch debt forgiveness nationwide.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.