Forty parents in the Pennsylvania Wyoming Valley West School District received letters this week from district officials threatening to remove their child from their home and place their child in foster care if they do not pay their child’s school lunch debt. Out of the district’s annual 80 million dollar budget, $22,000 dollars is owed in school lunches; a small fraction of the budget that is being used to threaten to separate children from their families. The families that received the letter were families that had a school lunch debt of $10 or more.
Luzerne County Manager David Pedri told NPR that “the foster care system should never be viewed as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families” in response to the letter. County officials have criticized the school district’s decision to threaten families and have asked district officials to stop using the language in the letter.
The Wyoming Valley West school district is one of the poorest districts in the state and many parents are struggling to pay bills on low-wage jobs. Bill Vinsko, a lawyer in Pennsylvania, stated that the letter is “really scary for parents who are trying to work for the best interests of their kids.” Not paying for a school lunch on time is not “neglect” and only further vilifies poor and working class families. “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically,” Senator Bob Casey said.
This past month, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) and Sen. Tina Smith (D) introduced the No Shame at School Act—a bill that would provide solutions for districts struggling with large school lunch debts. The bill would prohibit schools from publicly identifying and shaming students with outstanding lunch balances. Under this bill, schools would also no longer be able to employ debt collectors in an attempt to collect school lunch debt. However, schools will be able to apply for reimbursement from the federal government for up to 90 days of an unpaid school lunch debt.
As of now, there are many school districts across the country that provide free meals regardless of family income. In Boston, the largest city to have one of these programs, public schools have been providing free meals since 2013.
Media: NPR 7/22/19, ABCNews 7/19/19, The Hill 6/19/19, CNN 6/19/19, Feminist Newswire 9/5/13