RI school district to serve cold sandwiches to students with lunch debt

District faces accusations of lunch shaming

By AJ Willingham, CNN
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

(CNN) - A Rhode Island school district is facing accusations of lunch shaming after it announced a limited midday-meal option for students who are in debt on their school-lunch accounts.

Warwick Public Schools announced on their Facebook page Sunday that any students who had unpaid balances on their lunch accounts would receive a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich until their balance was paid.

"In accordance with Warwick School Committee Policy EFB; Effective Monday, May 13, 2019, if money is owed on a paid, free, or reduced lunch account a sun butter and jelly sandwich will be given as the lunch choice until the balance owed is paid in full or a payment plan is set up through the food service office," the post read.

Throngs of furious parents have commented on the post.

"Just give the kids lunch," one parent wrote. "We already lost a janitor, science teacher, don't have air conditioning, we can't spring for a chicken patty for a hungry kid? What if this is their only meal of the day?"

Some comments seem to indicate that parents received invoices for negligible amounts of money on their school lunch accounts, and were concerned about the school's policy.

"I got three letters for .05 cents owed," one parents wrote. "Finally I taped a nickel to the paper and sent it in. Really they need to chase a nickel!"

"If this policy goes into affect May 13, why did I already get a notification April 24 via email, phone, and paper letter saying this policy was already in affect when my child had a $-0.65 balance?" wrote another.

Under state law, Rhode Island schools are required to provide lunches to students and those meals must meet minimum federal nutrition standards. Children from low-income families are eligible for free or discounted lunches. According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, 69% of school lunches in the state are served for free or at a reduced price.

CNN has reached out to Warwick Public Schools, the Warwick Public Schools Superintendent and the WPS Budget Office and is waiting for a response.

 

It's part of a bigger controversy

 

The announcement also hit another sore spot for the Warwick Public Schools community. After word of the jelly sandwiches got around, a West Warwick business owner revealed that she had tried to donate $4,000 to Warwick Public Schools to pay off student lunch debts. They refused.

Angelica Penta says she set up donation jars at her two area diners in March 2018 to help defray student lunch debts. People were more than willing to donate to the cause, and she has raised more than $12,000.

"I gave $4000 to West Warwick Schools on January 8th, and then I tried to give additional money to Warwick Schools, but they denied the check," Penta told CNN.

Penta reached out to the Director of Finances for Warwick Public Schools and said she was told there were concerns about parents being upset that their bill was paid and how to allocate the $4,000.

Warwick Schools has said they have concerns about dividing up the donation.

"The business owner has maintained a position that they want to make a single, large donation to the district while leaving the student selection process to the school department," Warwick Public Schools told WPRI in a statement. "This is a position that the school department cannot support given the school's mission to treat all children equitably."

 

The problem of 'lunch shaming'

 

Penta says she was moved to start a donation system because of a spate of "lunch shaming" in the West Warwick Public Schools system last spring. In April 2018, West Warwick Public Schools superintendent Karen Tarasevich announced that school cafeterias could no longer deny students a hot lunch because of unpaid lunch balances.

Penta made her initial donation to West Warwick schools quietly, and continued to keep quiet after Warwick Schools denied her other donation. But after hearing the latest news, Penta said she wanted people to know that Warwick Schools had turned away an offer for help.

"That's why I had to stand up and do something," she said. "I am not going to keep it quiet anymore."

Both school lunch debt and "lunch shaming" are huge problems in public schools nationwide. Last April, Rhode Island public schools reportedly faced $300,000 in student lunch debt. However, the practice of singling out students who have unpaid lunch debt has received widespread criticism.

In 2017, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced a bill which would outlaw policies that publicize a student's lunch debt. These practices can include making a student wear a special sticker or wristband, or providing cold sandwiches instead of the usual hot-meal offering.

CNN's Chuck Johnston contributed to this report

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