Rhode Island students who owe lunch money will get cold sandwiches, officials say

A Rhode Island school district is substituting cold sandwiches for hot lunches given to students who owe money for their meals, and the decision has drawn some heated reaction.

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In a Facebook post, Warwick Public Schools announced that beginning Monday, if money is owed on “a paid, free, or reduced lunch account,” a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich will be given to the student instead of a hot lunch until the debt is resolved or a payment plan is set up.

“This policy actually comes out of a serious debt that we’re incurring by people who are not paying for their lunches, and it’s getting worse,” Karen Bachus, the Warwick School Committee’s chairwoman, told The Providence Journal.

District officials said there are 1,653 families with outstanding lunch debts, putting Warwick schools $77,000 in debt, WJAR reported.

Warwick had nearly 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in previous years, The Washington Post reported. 

The Warwick school district has had a cold sandwich policy in place before, but eliminated it in 2017, the Warwick Beacon reported in December. According to a district budget line item, unpaid lunch fees jumped from $9,000 in June 2017 to $45,000 in June 2018, the newspaper reported.

“Some students, the only thing that resonated was, ‘Why do I have to have a cheese sandwich when I want a burger?’ That made the parents pay attention,” district finance director Anthony Ferrucci told the Beacon.

Angelica Penta, owner of Mike & Gel’s Pizza in Warwick, said she tried to deliver a $4,000 check to the school district to help defray the costs but was rebuffed, the Warwick Post reported. 

"Everything that I said got shut down,” Penta told WJAR on Tuesday. “Every idea I had got shut down."

According to a statement from Superintendent Philip Thornton, the school department “was not in the position to single out or identify specific students that should be selected for a reduction in their lunch debt while excluding others.” 

The district’s Facebook post has received nearly 700 comments and has been shared more than 125 times.

“I just don’t think it’s fair to hold the kids responsible,” parent Heather Vale told WLNE. “I think it’s embarrassing to the kids because now everyone’s going to know why these children are receiving the lunch that they are.”

“To me, a SunButter and jelly sandwich is lunch shaming, because you’re basically telling all the other kids that you can’t afford lunch and you don’t have any lunch money,” Petna told WPRI.

“No child should go hungry, but a SunButter and jelly sandwich includes milk and everything else that a regular meal includes, and it is actually on the menu,” Bachus said during a school committee meeting in November, the Beacon reported. “So, it’s not an issue where somebody’s child gets SunGutter and nobody else gets SunButter.”

In West Warwick, where one of Penta’s restaurants is located, administrators in March 2018 accepted her $4,000 donation to help pay delinquent accounts, WPRI reported. 

In nearby Cranston, school officials were criticized for hiring a collection agency to find families that had school lunch debts, the Journal reported in December.

Cait Clement, a Warwick resident, started a GoFundMe page and has raised more than $11,600 in donations from more than 300 people after one day.

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