School district threatens to send kids to foster care over unpaid school lunch debt
Imagine this. You send your child to school. Your kid—whether it’s because you don’t have the resources to make them lunch at home or because they simply prefer to eat cafeteria food—gets lunch at school. Your child accrues a school lunch “debt.” Maybe it’s because you’re in a position where you have to prioritize other bills. Maybe your child forgot to hand in the money you gave them to cover the meals. Maybe they lost it or someone stole it. Anyway—the debt accrues.
What does the school do? If your child attends the Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania, this scenario could result in your child being sent to foster care.
Over school lunch “debt.” Obscene.
About one thousand parents received a letter with just this thinly veiled threat. CNNconfirms that they have reviewed the letter, which informed parents that, “Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” and that from there, “multiple letters sent home with your child” have notified parents about this “debt.” Then the letter alleges that failing to provide your child with food—as in, not packing them lunch, but also not paying for a school-provided meal—could result in parents being sent to Dependency Court.
And what could happen in Dependency Court? "If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care," the letter, as reported by CNN, reads.
As reported by WNEP, a CNN affiliate, the Wyoming Valley’s Cafeteria Purchase Charging and Insufficient Funds Policy doesn’t mention anything about going to court. Instead, it notes that when student accounts dip below negative $10, parents will receive an automated call every Friday until the debt is paid off.
WNEP identified Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs for the school district, as the person who wrote the letter. He told WNEP that it was a “last resort.” According to Muth, the district also considered serving students with negative accounts PB&J sandwiches.
Bringing up foster care brings in people outside of the school district, obviously. And so far, no one involved seems to have the school district’s back on this threat. David Pedri, Luzerne County Manager, issued a statement in which he pretty directly said the school’s letter was a no-go.
"Foster care is to be utilized only when absolutely needed — when a child has been abused, is in need or has suffered a tragedy," his statement, as reported by NBC News, reads in part. "Our foster care system is NOT to be utilized to scare parents into paying school lunch bills."
Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennslyvania, gave a statement on the fiasco, tweeting:
No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggli… https://t.co/8CrmH3Mxjr— Senator Bob Casey (@Senator Bob Casey) 1563549913
It’s true—while schools want to collect the money, they simply cannot do so with threats. It’s terrifying for families. They also can’t shame kids. Shaming a kid with a lesser meal or threatening to literally remove your child from your home does not make money appear out of thin air, and it doesn’t make it any less stressful to create a plan that is actually actionable.
As we all know, even outside of this particular district, school lunch debt has been a major topic. You might remember that back in May, a cafeteria worker was actually fired over giving a hungry student food. In June, Representative Ilhan Omar introduced a bill to end school lunch shaming practices.
There’s an obvious ethical argument here—all kids (and really, all people) deserve access to nutritious food on a regular basis. Morality aside, studies back up how important school meals are; fewer students get suspended when kids receive free lunch, students perform better when they’re not hungry, and for kids who experience chronic food insecurity, the difference between a breakfast or lunch at school and none at all is often the difference between eating that day or not. But the difference between paying for a meal or not should never result in a kid being tossed into foster care—or even the dangled threat of it.