A Rhode Island school district has changed its policy after facing criticism for a plan to serve students who owe lunch money sun butter and jelly sandwiches instead of a hot meal.
Warwick Public Schools, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, said Wednesday that a school subcommittee recommended students get the lunch of their choice regardless of their account balance. Chairwoman Karen Bachus clarified that under the current policy students would’ve been provided the sandwich, which is also a daily choice on the school lunch menu, vegetables, fruit, and milk.
“With this Policy we seek to find a balance between being fiscally responsible and ensuring that all our students are provided with a healthy, nutritious lunch,” Bachus said on Facebook.
The district faced pushback after announcing in a Facebook post Sunday that students who owed money on paid, free or reduced lunch accounts would be served cold sandwiches until the balance is paid starting May 13.
Parents left scores of angry comments on the district’s post, with many arguing that the decision punishes children who are struggling financially, or that the amounts they owe are trivial.
“My kids pay for lunch, and I have received notices for owing $0.10, $0.25 in the past,” wrote one parent. “It’s really a bad idea to take it out on the kids … They are kids. They do not pay their bills.”
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All public schools in Rhode Island are required by state law to provide lunches to students, and 69% of the lunches served are free or offered at a reduced price.
Bachus clarified that 72% of debt is owed by students on paid plans, not free or reduced accounts, and that debt is incurred only when students select a la carte options such as pizza, fries, ice cream and other snacks.
Parents are notified twice of the debt before a student’s a la carte access is denied, she added. The district says it is owed $77,000 from school lunch debt and 1,653 students have an outstanding debt.
Local restaurant owner Angelica Penta said in a Facebook post that she offered the district a donation to pay for school lunches and officials refused to accept.
“I have met with Warwick twice and the second time I left in tears after they refused to take a $4,000 check,” Penta wrote. “There is no need for any child to be denied a hot lunch. We never know a child’s or their families situation, everyone struggles at some point.”
Penta told CBS that she began collecting donations last year and has since raised more than $13,000. Although she offered several solutions, she said the district didn’t want to choose which students’ lunches were paid for and thought some parents would be too prideful to accept the money, according to CBS.
The district released a statement to local media acknowledging the donation offers, but reiterating that it is not in a position to choose which students should benefit.
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“The School Department’s recommendation to the business owner is that they create a program to decide which students would be eligible to have their account reduced or expunged by the donations the business owner had available. Applications could then be reviewed by the business owner and donations could be made to accounts selected by the business owner,” the statement said. “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.”
The district added on Facebook that they are “grateful” for the financial support that has been offered and are working with attorneys to accept them in a lawful manner and distribute them equitably.
Other school districts in Rhode Island have been previously accused of “lunch shaming” after parents complained that lunch ladies in West Warwick were turning away students who owed money, the Providence Journal reported in 2018. West Warwick Superintendent Karen Tarasevich told the outlet that she was “confident” that wouldn’t happen in the future.
“No student will be denied a meal if there is an unpaid balance,” Tarasevich said in 2018. “The student won’t be held responsible.”
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
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