UPDATE, Thursday, July 25, 2:03 p.m.: This story and headline have been updated to include Wyoming Valley West School District’s apology.
Threatening to put children in foster care over cafeteria debt is the latest version of lunch shaming to surface and spark outrage.
The Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania sent letters to 40 parents last week, saying their children would be put into foster care if they didn't pay outstanding lunch bills. The letter was an attempt to collect $22,476 of owed lunch money, according to ABC. Joseph Muth, director of the district’s federal programs, said on Friday that the letter was a mistake and the school will look into other ways to get repaid. School district staff and the general public have criticized the move.
The Wyoming Valley West School District issued an official apology letter on Wednesday, July 24, according to CNN. In a turn of events, after rejecting donation offers to help pay the debt — including one from coffee company La Colombe — the district announced it will accept contributions. Students now also qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, a USDA Food and Nutrition Service Program that assists low-income students in high-poverty schools. All students will receive free breakfast and lunch in all of the district’s schools for the next five years, the letter stated.
The original letter to parents, which caused widespread backlash, said: "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. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
If the kids end up in foster care the state will be providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner...and everything in between.— cory provost (@coryprovost) July 21, 2019
Instead, they could just provide the damn kids' lunch and get rid of this nonsense debt scheme. https://t.co/RN4tsL241j
The children’s debt ranged from $12.50 to $450, according to the Washington Post. Roughly 1,000 families owe the district, and every family that owed more than $10 received the letter, David Usavage, vice president of the Wyoming Valley West School District school board, said. School officials reported the letter was at least their third attempt to contact the parents.
Usavage said he was “enraged” when he heard about the letter but other officials have been quick to defend it. Charles Coslett, the lawyer representing Wyoming Valley West School District’s school board, told ABC News he stood by the letter’s message.
“It merely lays out the options available to the district if people continue to ignore their parental responsibility and the nutritional needs of their minor sons and daughters," he said.
Another example of how we criminalize #poverty in the US. In addition to shaming families for not paying a lunch debt, the Wyoming Valley West School District is threatening to place children in foster care for unpaid lunch bills that range from $10-$450? https://t.co/BHLQuRDSFu— Nicole Limperopulos (@Limperopulos) July 21, 2019
DISGUSTING (but consistent with disparate treatment of poor/poc in child removal)— Professor Darren Hutchinson (@dissentingj) July 20, 2019
A school district sent letters to parents demanding they pay school lunch debt or risk having children placed in foster care.
But this strategy can have harmful psychological effects on children living in poverty, according to Sandy Santana, executive director of the national watchdog organization Children’s Rights.
“Kids who are in poverty experience tremendous toxic stress and the threat of being separated from your parents because of that poverty adds to that stress,” Santana told Global Citizen.
About 14% of families in the school district live below the poverty line — around 10% higher than the rate of the state of Pennsylvania, according to ABC. Children from low-income families are disproportionately put into foster care.
Threatening to remove children from their families over lunch debt is part of the failure of the US’ child welfare and educational systems, which continue to punish and criminalize poverty, according to Santana.
“[Over] 70% of the kids who go into foster care systems are there because of neglect, and many times neglect gets confused with poverty,” Santana explained. “It’s poor people struggling and trying to do the best they can.”
If it had been implemented, Wyoming Valley West School District's lunch-shaming strategy would have negatively impacted the children’s social and emotional well-being further, as children in foster care are also at risk for malnutrition and inadequate growth.
Wyoming Valley West’s crackdown continues the national debate on how schools should handle lunch debt. In May, Rhode Island’s Warwick School District announced a plan to punish students with cafeteria balances by serving them cold sandwiches instead of hot meals. Officials put that policy on hold after receiving backlash.
Slowly, policies that promote lunch shaming are being banned. New Mexico became the first state to ban lunch shaming in 2017 and Washington, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and California have since followed suit.
“The first step by any public school or any public provider is to try and support the families, figure out ways the family can be supported, instead of issuing these types of threats,” Santana said.