A School District in Pennsylvania Threatened to Send Kids to Foster Care for Not Paying Lunch Debt

updated Jul 22, 2019
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In the grand hierarchy of the most evil things you can do, ripping a hungry child from their parents’ home might just be in competition for top spot. Yet that is exactly what one Pennsylvania school district proposes to do, and over bills for under $100, no less. Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania apparently informed parents that the unpaid “lunch debt” was “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.”

Yup, they have threatened to have children removed from their homes if the family can’t afford to pay off the lunch bill. Before we even get to the moral injustice of this, I tried to do the math on the amount of money the state would be paying to drag this poor family into court and how many $75 lunch bills could be paid off with those funds. I can’t. There’s no way the judge alone doesn’t make more than $75 per hour. 

According to NPR, some Luzerne county officials, who run the local foster-care system, have openly criticized the threat. “The foster care system should never be viewed as a punitive agency or weaponized to terrorize children and families,” David Pedri, the Luzerne County Manager, explains.

Yet somehow, despite the bad math and the criticism, the idea of “school lunch debt” continues to be a thing. You might remember that a couple of months ago in Rhode Island, a school district took a much-deserved national shaming for no longer serving hot lunch to students who owed money to the cafeteria. Given that the children themselves aren’t the one earning the money (these are often elementary and middle school students), and that for many the food they find at school may be the only food they eat all day, the shaming of the children likely does little more than cause intense psychological trauma and only increase their hunger: two things that negate any mission to educate that a school might have. 

Further, the Rhode Island school district’s refusal to accept a cash donation to pay off the debt shows that there’s a deeper issue of institutionalized shame for hungry children and struggling parents rather than a shared mission to raise better children. While individual teachers do their best to ameliorate the issues of food insecurity, there is a real need for an overhaul of American school lunch systems to find a way that they can serve their students in a manner that helps, rather than hurts, the families and children struggling the most.