Andrew Krech/The Citizens' Voice via AP

A School District Threatened Families Who Can't Pay Lunch Debt With Family Court and Foster Care

'We know children do better when they're with their families,' a youth services spokesperson said in response

By Lauren Rearick

On July 16, 2019, a Pennsylvania school district threatened to place children with outstanding school lunch debt in foster care. Just a week later, the president of the district's board of education defended the decision with some pretty condescending financial advice.

Nearly 1,000 students attending Wyoming Valley West School District in Kingston, Pennsylvania, have an outstanding balance on their school lunch account, WNEP reports. In an attempt to collect the money, Joseph Muth, the district’s director of federal programs, sent a letter home to parents and guardians that read, “your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” CNN reported. The letter then told parents and guardians that any unpaid debt could possibly result in the guardian being forced to attend dependency court, with a possible outcome of “your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

In an interview on Sunday, July 21, with NPR, Joseph Mazur, the president of the district’s board of education defend Muth’s letter. “I think you have to pay your bills,” he said. “I mean, I've been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. I mean, sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they're taken care of.”

Mazur told NPR that “every poor kid got a meal.” He went on to note that all of the children were still fed, and that the school had not stopped providing lunches to anyone that still owed money.

However, Joanne Van Saun, director of the Luzerne County Children and Youth Services, told CNN the organization was “blindsided” by the district’s decision to send the letter. “The way they handled it was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and could have easily been resolved through so many different avenues.”

She also clarified the role of family services to CNN: “We exist to protect and preserve families. The only time a child is taken out is when they cannot be maintained safely in their home,” she explained. “Our agency has helped many children and families with paying rent and buying clothes. We know children do better when they're with their families."

Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC, told MTV News that proper communication between guardians and school districts is key in reducing school meal debt, and in this case, the school’s letter was not the right approach. “We think that school districts should be reaching out to families and making sure they are not eligible for free or reduced school meals, because that’s what could be going on when a family starts to accrue unpaid meal debt,” she noted.

FitzSimons acknowledged that unpaid school meal debt is an ongoing issue that can impact finances in districts across the country  but there are options for both guardians and districts to potentially avoid continuing debt. Along with ensuring that eligible parents and guardians apply for reduced school meals, schools can apply for Community Eligibility, a provision available for school districts in low-income areas that ensures districts receive government reimbursement for unpaid meal debt.

In 2018, the School Nutrition Association previously reported that nearly 75 percent of schools across the United States had unpaid student meal debt at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 school year.

FRAC is now closely monitoring the No Shame at School Act, a bill introduced to Congress in June by Rep. Ilhan Omar. If passed, the bill would put an end to identifiers used for students that rely on free or reduced school meals and permit school districts to receive retroactive reimbursement for unpaid meal debt accrued by a student that was later found to be eligible for reduced meals, ABC News reported.

MTV News has reached out to Wyoming Valley West School District for comment.