As of Thursday, no family in the Northeastern Pennsylvania school district that attracted national attention for its efforts to collect school-lunch debts owes a penny.

Todd Carmichael, the cofounder and CEO of Philadelphia-based La Colombe Coffee, confirmed that he wired $22,467 to the Wyoming Valley West school system, which had threatened parents whose children had unpaid lunch balances with the possible placement of their children in foster care.

“Todd is thrilled that we were able to come to this conclusion where we are able to take care of the kids,” Aren Platt, a consultant working for Carmichael, said Thursday afternoon.

The school system is also sending affected parents another letter: one that apologizes — again — for the foster-care threats, but goes further.

In the letter, Superintendent Irvin DeRemer said he did not approve the initial letter, which was sent to hundreds of families in the 4,500-student district.

“I was appalled and upset about its content,” DeRemer wrote in the letter. “No parent will be petitioned to Dependency Court for the possible removal of their child to foster care due to any lunch debt they may owe to the School District.”

DeRemer acknowledged Carmichael’s donation, and reiterated that beginning in September, every child in the district will be eligible for free breakfast and lunch. That’s common in high-poverty districts like Philadelphia and Wyoming Valley West, where 64% of children live below the poverty line.

The initial letter, which was signed by the district’s director of federal programs, warned that parents’ actions were “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.”

Todd Carmichael, founder of La Colombe, paid almost $23,000 to clear the school-lunch debt of families who could not pay it after officials there threatened to put their children in foster care over the unpaid bills.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff photographer
Todd Carmichael, founder of La Colombe, paid almost $23,000 to clear the school-lunch debt of families who could not pay it after officials there threatened to put their children in foster care over the unpaid bills.

Carmichael grew up poor and relying on free lunches, and when he heard the news, he was furious. He called the schools’ move “lunch shaming” and offered to clear the tab. School board president Joseph Mazur initially refused the offer, saying it was families’ responsibility to pay and insisting that most of the families could afford payment, but were just trying to get something for free.

After a national furor erupted over the Luzerne County district’s actions, Mazur quickly reversed himself, apologizing for the tone of the letter, saying the district would accept the donation through its charitable foundation, and saying that officials never meant to shame students who could not pay for food.