Todd Carmichael grew up poor. His family relied on food stamps, and he qualified for free school lunches, something that made him feel ashamed.

So when Carmichael, now the CEO of La Colombe coffee, heard about a Northeastern Pennsylvania school district threatening to put a group of students in foster care because their parents hadn’t paid their school lunch debts, he had a visceral reaction. He didn’t want other children to feel the shame he once did.

Carmichael then proposed a solution: He offered to write a check for $22,467 to the Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County.

But school board president Joseph Mazur said no to Carmichael, whose progressive politics have become increasingly high-profile.

“I am offering to pay this debt in full,” Carmichael wrote in a letter addressed to Mazur and published in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice. “By saying no, you are not just shaming families who elected you, but you are placing this burden on the WVW taxpayers, and that is completely unfair.”

Carmichael, a self-described activist against the policies of President Donald Trump and his administration, has been jailed in the past for causes he cares about. He supports a $15 per hour minimum wage and better state funding of Pennsylvania public schools, and has come out against tax breaks for corporations.

But the Wyoming Valley West situation really touched a nerve, he said Tuesday.

La Colombe chief executive Todd Carmichael, who grew up poor and relying on free school lunches, has offered to clear the debts of northeastern Pennsylvania families whose school district is threatening to put children in foster care over unpaid lunch bills.
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La Colombe chief executive Todd Carmichael, who grew up poor and relying on free school lunches, has offered to clear the debts of northeastern Pennsylvania families whose school district is threatening to put children in foster care over unpaid lunch bills.

“I was freaking angry,” he said, and he also thought about how scared his mom would have been if someone had threatened to take him and his sisters away from her for an unpaid school bill.

Carmichael also said he didn’t like the idea that Pennsylvania was attracting national attention for the wrong reasons, “that we’re a bunch of backwards folks who threaten to take people’s kids away."

Carmichael had Aren Platt, a La Colombe consultant, reach out to the Wyoming Valley West School District attorney over the weekend, but got no response. Next, efforts were made to reach the superintendent. Finally, Platt found a home phone number for Mazur and called him on Monday. He made the no-strings-attached offer and said Carmichael didn’t necessarily need credit for his actions.

Mazur told Platt that he would not accept the offer, Platt said. Mazur said that he believed most of the families that owed money could afford the debt, and that it was their responsibility to pay.

“His counter was, ‘These are affluent families who just want to get something for free,’” said Platt. “This wasn’t ever about repayment of a debt. It was about shaming people.”

Carmichael agreed that the district is less concerned with its $22,000 and more concerned about humiliating people who struggle.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to do that,” said Carmichael, “to shame them because they can’t pay for mac and cheese.”

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 64% of the 4,500 Wyoming Valley West students live below the poverty line.

Messages left for Mazur and other school officials were not returned.

The controversy began when the West Wyoming Valley school system sent hundreds of letters to families whose children owed money for school lunches.

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. 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,” school district director of federal programs Joseph Muth wrote in the letter, according to the Citizens’ Voice. "If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.… Please remit payment as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities.”

Federal law mandates that school districts offer children food even when they have unpaid bills for school lunches, but district officials took issue with the regulation.

“It’s a fundamental obligation of parents to house, feed, and clothe their children,” Charles Coslett, an attorney and school board member, told the paper. “It’s not our obligation. This nanny-state mentality is troubling to me.”

In some districts, including Philadelphia, the concentration of poverty is so great that all students receive free breakfast and lunch. Wyoming Valley West is moving to such a model this coming school year, according to the Citizens’ Voice.

Luzerne County Manager David Pedri told CNN that the county would never take children away from their parents over unpaid school debts.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) waded into the fray, saying the school district has to stop using threats to get its money.

Carmichael said that while “I just don’t like” Mazur, the offer to settle the families’ debt still stands.

“Let’s just take care of the problem,” said Carmichael. “Let’s just take care of the kids.”