By now you've likely heard the latest rage-inducing news from my home state of Pennsylvania. But in case you haven't, here's a refresh: Earlier this month, a school district in Luzerne County—a high-poverty region tucked within the tourist-heavy Pocono Mountains—sent a letter home with students who have unpaid breakfast and lunch bills.
In the letter, school officials threatened to report parents to Dependency Court, where their children could be removed "and placed in foster care," if they failed to pay their meal debt. The letter sparked outcry on social media and prompted an outpouring of offers to settle the students' bills.
Among the would-be donors is La Colombe, a coffee roasting company founded in Philadelphia that now supplies coffee and operates cafes in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
But here's where this story really gets strange: Todd Carmichael, co-founder and CEO of La Colombe, said his offer to pay the $22,000 in outstanding meal debt was rejected by the Wyoming Valley West School District.
"We talked to School Board President Joseph Mazur to determine the best way to transfer the funds in order to wipe the slate clean and restore dignity to the 1,000 families who received these threatening letters," Carmichael wrote in a letter obtained by NBC News. "Shockingly, Mr. Mazur turned us down. I can't explain or justify his actions. Let me be clear: we offered over $22,000 with no strings attached. And he said 'NO.'"
Carmichael, who received free lunches while at school, said he was "horrified" to learn of the letter and accused the district of "shaming" students whose families are struggling. But he wasn't the only one to step up.
Luzerne County Manager David Pedri, who condemned the district's letter as a scare tactic, told NPR that at least five donors have come forward with offers to pay the debt, including a "prominent media figure" who requested anonymity.
Hamilton, who built her venture capital firm while homeless and now focuses her investments on startups led by people of color, women and LGBTQ people, also offered a more permanent solution involving fellow change-makers. “[Tiffani Ashley Bell] and [Kristy Tillman] I know at one point the three of us were talking about applying the Detroit Water Project method to school lunch debt. Is there anyone you know of who has it figured out?”
A bit of background for context: Bell and Tillman helped create the Detroit Water Project back in 2014, in response to news that residents of Flint, Michigan, were paying some of the highest rates in the nation for water tainted by lead. Now called the Human Utility, this grassroots nonprofit uses small donations to pay water bills for low-income households and has since reached more than 1,000 families in Detroit and Baltimore.
Hamilton isn't the only one with the idea to apply a similar model to pay off school lunch debt. In 2017, New York City-based writer Ashley C. Ford translated her disgust with "lunch shaming" into a call-to-action for her 66,000 Twitter followers, writing: “A cool thing you can do today is try to find out which of your local schools have kids with overdue lunch accounts and pay them off.”
Her challenge prompted people in communities across the country to start fundraising drives to settle lunch debt in their local districts. A campaign in Minnesota, for example, raised nearly $100,000, while the southwest Indiana city of Evansville brought in around $20,000, CBS News reported.
We're also seeing more action from the business community. Earlier this year, when a Rhode Island school district started giving cold meals to students who hadn't paid their lunch bills, yogurt company Chobani—an early investor in La Colombe—donated nearly $50,000 to settle the debt.
In an emotional video posted to Twitter, Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya insisted the donation must be a beginning, not an end. "We need to step up," he said. "We'll take care of this school's bill ... but we need everyone around the country to eliminate this [problem] for all." A month later, the company donated $85,000 to clear lunch debt at another district in Idaho.
And this spring Nikki Bailey, a mom from Monroe, Washington, founded the apparel brand Three Point Clothing with the sole purpose of paying down lunch debt in her local district—after news broke that unpaid bills could prevent graduating seniors from receiving their diplomas.
Though every little bit helps, some insiders say this is an issue of policy that donors can't address alone. “It’s unrealistic to think donations are going to fix this problem for school districts,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, told CBS News. “It’s going to continue to be an issue until we get universal free meals for all students.”
Still, as the unfolding story in my state shows, it's impossible for donors to make a dent in this problem if school districts won't let them try. For years we've heard some segments of the public sector cry out for collaboration with companies and their executives. And as the brands taking stands movement shows no signs of slowing, they'd be wise to remember that—and to accept help from stakeholders looking to use their capital for good.
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling.
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