For Todd Carmichael, this was personal.
A Spokane native who faced poverty as a child, the Philadelphia businessman was only trying to do the right thing last month when he offered to pay off the school lunch debts of poor families in northeastern Pennsylvania.
In mid-July, the Wyoming Valley School District had sent letters to parents, threatening to put some children in foster care because their lunch bills were unpaid.
The letter was ominous.
It read, in part: “If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care. … Please remit payment as soon as possible to avoid being reported to the proper authorities.”
Carmichael was shocked, but he had an easy solution. And he’d done the same for other districts.
Carmichael, a millionaire and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, offered to write the district a check for $22,647.
He didn’t want other children to feel the shame he once did in Spokane.
No thanks, said school board president Joseph Mazur, who believed that most of the families were capable of paying the debts – despite 64% of Wyoming Valley students living below the poverty line, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Charles Coslett, an attorney and school board member, poured gasoline on the fire when he told a local newspaper that “it’s a fundamental obligation of parents to house, feed, and clothe their children. It’s not our obligation.
“This nanny-state mentality is troubling to me,” Coslett said.
Shock yielded to outrage. “I was freaking angry,” Carmichael told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Carmichael responded with a letter addressed to Mazur and published in the Wilkes-Barre daily newspaper.
“I am offering to pay this debt in full,” Carmichael wrote. “By saying no, you are not just shaming families who elected you, but you are placing this burden on the WVW taxpayers, and that is completely unfair.”
For Carmichael, this was about humiliating people who struggle – much like his own family back in Spokane.
Long before he founded La Colombe, Carmichael lived on a dirt road in the Spokane Valley in the late 1960s with a widowed mother and three sisters.
Reality slapped him in the face on the first day of first grade.
“I realized for the first time that oh, my God, we’re poor,” recalled Carmichael. “You realize that you don’t dress like everyone else and can’t afford to buy food.”
The Wyoming Valley situation received national attention. Suddenly it was the school district that was being shamed. On July 24, the district agreed to accept Carmichael’s offer.
It came grudgingly – four of district’s nine members stuck by their threat to parents – but gratifying for Carmichael.
“With the outpouring of support, I realized that a lot of Americans deal with lunch shaming,” said Carmichael, who dealt with it for years.
Most of it was internal, a loss of self-worth during a child’s most impressionable years.
Carmichael eventually outran the cycle of poverty. In 1981, he ran on a state championship cross country team at Ferris High School. He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Washington, then worked an accountant specializing in international tax law.
While in college he worked in a Starbucks warehouse and found his passion: coffee. In 1994, he and old friend Jean Philippe Iberti opened LaColombe Torrefaction, a European-style café, in downtown Philly.
Later that year they opened a roastery. Their coffee is served at high-end restaurants around the country. LaColombe also operates 30 cafes in the U.S. and plans to expand overseas.
Along the way, Carmichael’s humanitarian passions percolated amid the coffee.
Working with ECHOES Around the World in Uganda and Wide Horizons For Children in Ethiopia, he aided hundreds of orphaned children living in Africa through Project Afrique.
Carmichael also worked to bring safe drinking water into some of the world’s coffee-drinking regions, notably Ethiopia and Haiti.
He also found time to explore. He’s been to half the countries in the world, and in 2008 became the first American to cross from the shores of Antarctica to the South Pole on foot and unassisted.
However, the 55-year-old Carmichael always finds a way to return to Spokane, where his mother and three sisters still live.
Despite the hardships, “growing up in Spokane was the best childhood I could think of for myself,” Carmichael said.
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