Todd Carmichael, the CEO of La Colombe Coffee Roasters based in Philadelphia, is paying the school lunch debt parents owed in a northeastern Pennsylvania school district.
The Wyoming Valley West School District is located in Luzerne County about 115 miles north of Philadelphia. The district made headlines for sending a threatening letter to a group of parents who had failed to pay for school lunches. Each family owed between $12 and $450 to the school, and the total debt added up to $22,467.
District officials warned that failure to repay the debt could result in children being sent to foster care. The letter that was sent to parents read in part, “Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. 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.”
The letter immediately prompted a backlash. Luzerne County officials reassured the community that the foster care system doesn’t work that way. County Manager David Pedri told the Washington Post, “This letter was used to weaponize and terrorize, and to strike fear in parents to pay bills. In no way, shape or form are we the boogeyman coming to take your kids away in the middle of the night.”
Carmichael stepped in and offered to pay the debt on behalf of the parents. Wyoming Valley officials initially rejected his offer, allegedly arguing that the parents could afford to pay. But on July 24, 2019, school leaders reversed course and announced that it would accept Carmichael’s offer after all.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Todd Carmichael Said He Was Motivated to Help Because He Received Free Meals as a Child
Todd Carmichael describes himself as a “passionate crusader for social” causes. Part of that drive appears to stem from his childhood. In an editorial published in the local newspaper, the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice, Carmichael said he wanted to help the parents in the Wyoming Valley West School District because he knows “what it means to be hungry.”
He explained in the editorial that his family received assistance via food stamps and that he was eligible for free meals at school. Carmichael wrote, “I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food.” He described feeling “horrified” upon seeing stories about the threatening letter parents in the district had received.
Carmichael said he spoke with School Board President Joseph Mazur over the phone and offered to pay off the lunch debt, and was “shocked” when his offer was rejected. He wrote, “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.’ Not only was Mr. Mazur callous and cruel in his refusal, but he also bucked his fiduciary responsibility to the school district that elected him to serve. Quite literally, he turned away funding.” You can read Carmichael’s full editorial published in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice here.
2. Carmichael Said the School Lunch Issue Made Him ‘Freaking Angry’
Todd Carmichael further explained his motivation for wanting to help the parents in the Wyoming Valley West School District to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He said that the headlines about parents being threatened with having their kids taken away for unpaid school lunches made him “freaking angry.”
He said he thought about how scared such a threat would have made his own mother, who at times struggled to sustain the family.
Carmichael added that it upset him to see Pennsylvania in the headlines for such a negative reason. He told the Inquirer that he hopes the rest of the nation doesn’t look at Pennsylvania as a “bunch of backwards folks who threaten to take people’s kids away.”
3. The School District Reversed Course & Decided to Accept Carmichael’s Offer
The president of the Wyoming Valley West School Board, Joseph A. Mazur, was one of the people who had signed the original letter to parents. He defended it in follow-up interviews, stressing that the point had been to get parents’ attention.
A spokesman for Todd Carmichael, Aren Platt, told the Associated Press that Mazur declined Carmichael’s offer to cleanse the debt because he felt that the parents could afford it themselves. Platt told the AP, “The position of Mr. Carmichael is, irrespective of affluence, irrespective of need, he just wants to wipe away this debt.”
But on July 24, Mazur changed his tune. He signed another letter, which was posted to the school district’s website, announcing that the district was accepting Carmichael’s “generous offer.” He explained that the funds would be “directed to the Wyoming Valley West Educational Foundation to eliminate the debt owed by the parents.”
Mazur added, “For the first time, our district fully qualifies for the Community Eligibility Program. As a result, all students of the Wyoming Valley West School District will receive free breakfast and lunch in all of our schools for the next five years regardless of income. No student was ever denied a meal for lack of payment.” The full letter is embedded above.
4. Todd Carmichael is Known For His Social Advocacy
Todd Carmichael has long been active in supporting causes he cares about. He began that advocacy as an 18-year-old student at the University of Washington in 1982. He organized a march on campus to protest the apartheid government of South Africa and ended up in jail. As he explained to the Philadelphia Enquirer in 2018, “This would be my first time in jail—and hardly my last. When eventually released, pushing through a heavy set of doors, I felt momentarily invigorated. It was in that moment I morphed from being a voter/politician to being an activist.”
In March of 2018, Carmichael decided to quit both Facebook and Twitter because he felt the platforms posed a “danger to democracy.” Before going dark, he urged other social media users to stop using the platforms. His accounts are still there, he just doesn’t update them anymore.
Carmichael has also been an advocate for a $15 minimum wage. He argued in 2017 that “unless you pay your employees a nonpredatory living wage that keeps people and their families above the poverty line, you don’t deserve to be in business.”
Carmichael also supports environmental causes. On his website dedicated to his world travels, he promotes a charity that works to provide access to clean water around the world.
5. Todd Carmichael Was the First American to Walk Alone Across Antarctica to the South Pole
Todd Carmichael is also known for his worldwide travels and support of ecological causes. In 2008, he made headlines as the first American to walk 700 miles, alone, across Antarctica to the South Pole. He accomplished the feat in 39 days, 7 hours, and 49 minutes.
Carmichael’s travels have also included trips across the Sahara Desert, Namib Desert, and the Gobi Desert. In 2009, he planned to walk 400 miles across Death Valley but had to cancel the expedition because of a problem with his equipment.
When he’s not traversing the globe, Carmichael runs his coffee business, La Colombe, which he co-founded in 1994 alongside business partner Jean Philippe Iberti.
Carmichael is married to musician Lauren Hart. They adopted three daughters and a son from Ethiopia.