A school district in Rhode Island has drawn the ire of parents after warning that students who own money on their lunch accounts will only be given a sun butter and jelly sandwich until they’re able to pay their balance.
Warwick Public Schools, which serves over 9,000 students from pre-K to K-12, announced the new policy in a Facebook post Sunday.
“In accordance with the 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 …,” the statement read.
The announcement was met with swift criticism from parents who accused the district of “shaming” students and families struggling to cover the costs of school-provided lunch. Others argued that handing out jelly sandwiches to kids who owed would not only leave those children feeling embarrassed, but would likely make them the target of bullying.
“Just give the kids lunch,” one Facebook user wrote. “We’ve already lost a janitor, science teacher, don’t have air conditioning, we cant spring for a chicken patty for a hungry kid? What if this is their only meal of the day?”
“This is absolutely awful,” another added. “Our schools shouldn’t be in the business of shaming children.”
A fellow online user agreed, writing: ” To broadcast these student by only giving them sunbutter and jelly sandwiches and open them up to ridicule shows the absolute lack of moral character among your School Committee. Clearly these students can’t afford lunch for reasons.”
One critic questioned how one would explain such a policy to a kindergartner or 1st grader: “‘No sorry sweetie you have to eat the most disgusting thing the school offers.’ ”
Citing state data, NBC News reported that almost 70 percent of lunches in Rhode Island schools are served for free or at a reduced price, based on a family’s income. Still some parents who qualify for free, or reduced lunch say they still wound up owing because their student had put something on their trays that was not included with their free meal, like a carton of milk, according to the outlet.
District officials told the Associated Press that it is owed more than $40,000 in outstanding lunch payments, prompting the controversial new policy.
Local restaurant owner Angelica Penta offered to donate $4,000 to help students and families who owed lunch money, Providence station WJAR reported. Penta, who raised the money by setting up a donation jar in her eatery, Gel’s Kitchen, said her offer was refused, however.
“I’ve met with Warwick twice and the second time I left in tears after they refused to take a $4,000 check,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I get where they are coming from. They don’t want parents getting upset if their child’s lunch gets paid for, but if they are going through hard times they may need help.”
“I come up with several different ideas and they were all shut down,” Penta added.
In a statement, Warwick district officials said they declined the donation because there was no way to allot for which students would benefit from the money.
“Each time these offers were made, Warwick Public Schools stated that 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,” officials said.
Instead, the district suggested that Penta “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.”
According to AP, state lawmakers are currently reviewing legislation that would make hot lunches available to all students, regardless of income.