Rhode Island schools sparked national outrage this week over policies that limit students to sunbutter and jelly sandwiches if their families fall behind on lunch payments. As opposition grew against such policies, which many viewed as humiliating, schools across the state adopted new ones that allow students to maintain their dignity if they can’t afford to pay their lunch debt. But these new policies come at a price, and it’s often schools that end up footing the bills.
The Warwick school district had been accused of “lunch shaming” by refusing to provide hot lunch options to students with outstanding lunch debt, instead offering a cold sandwich with sides of vegetables, fruit and milk. Following outrage across Rhode Island and the country, officials released a statement clarifying the policy, saying students are denied hot lunch items only after the district has sent two letters to parents asking for payment.
As of May 3, the district reported more than $77,000 in outstanding charges from student lunches. That prompted Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya to release a video Thursday saying “every child should have access to natural, nutritious and delicious food, so Chobani is doing our small part to help pay this debt,” while calling for other businesses to step up to help students around the country.
Department of Education spokesperson Megan Geoghegan said that while there is no statewide rule on the subject, the USDA sets federal guidelines for unpaid lunch policies to ensure that students do not go hungry.
“Unpaid meal policies are a local decision, but at the state level, we certainly encourage districts to consider the potential negative impacts on students,” Commissioner of Education Angelica Infante-Green said in a statement. “It’s important for districts to have a conversation with their community and craft a policy that ensures that all children feel supported, cared for, and welcome in their school community. A child should never feel singled out or ashamed in school, in the cafeteria or otherwise.”
Cranston schools used to a have a similar policy to Warwick’s, with students given the alternate lunch of a sunbutter sandwich after charging five lunches to their account without payment. That policy was changed about a year ago, said Michael Crudale, the executive director of human resources for Cranston schools.
“We didn’t find the policy to be as effective as we thought it would be,” Crudale said.
Under the new policy, students can charge an unlimited number of lunches to their account, with notices sent to parents after five lunches or 30 days without payment. After 60 days, the issue is referred to a collection agency, though Crudale said that parents’ credit would not be affected. Parents are also sent information for free and reduced-price lunch programs for those who may qualify.
The new policy comes at a price. Crudale estimated that, districtwide, there is more than $90,000 in outstanding lunch debt, a number that is expected to top $100,000 before the end of the school year.
“It’s an increasing problem, and it is unfortunately becoming the norm,” Crudale said, adding that the figure has increased over the past few years. At the end of the year, the district is forced to take profits from the lunch program that would otherwise be used for cafeteria updates or better quality food and use them to help cover the massive lunch debts.
Portsmouth schools also overhauled their lunch policy in March 2017, when the school board voted to adopt a new policy to ensure “lunchtime dignity,” said Christopher DiIuro, director of finance and administration for the district.
In Portsmouth schools, elementary- and middle-school students can charge an unlimited number of hot lunches to their account, regardless of the balance.
“The thinking there is that it’s not their fault or responsibility at that age, it’s on the parent to make sure there is enough money to pay for lunch,” DiIuro said.
High school students, however, have a $15 limit on their account. When they reach the limit, they’re out of luck.
“Once you get to high school, it’s more of your own responsibility, and there are more options. You can borrow money from a friend or call your parents if there are no other options available,” DiIuro said.
Portsmouth’s program has been more effective, with only about $8,000 in lunch debt currently on the books.
To help cover the growing debt and address public outcry, Warwick schools, who said they accepted Chobani’s donation, will be accepting donations from the community. A donation form is available on the district’s website.