$150K donated to solve lunch debts

'Shaming' policy comes before committee tonight

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An outpouring of financial support – from the local Rhode Island community and citizens across the country to worldwide yogurt companies and Hollywood stars like Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore – has resulted in over $150,000 in donations to cover school lunch debt in Warwick, which amounted to $77,000 at the beginning of last week.

These fundraising efforts include two GoFundMe campaigns – one started from local community members who raised $56,693 in six days from 1,288 people, and one started by a Washington D.C. resident that raised $47,846 in four days from 1,325 people – and a pledge from Chobani for $46,750 that was brokered by Mayor Joseph Solomon and House Majority Leader Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi. Other donation figures floated include a $40,000 donation from CBS’s “The Talk,” and a $10,000 individual donation from a couple in Venus, Fla.

However, as of Monday morning none of those donations had actually been received by the Warwick School Department, according to Superintendent Philip Thornton.

“Nothing has come in as of this hour,” Thornton said via phone interview.

This does not mean that they will not be accepting any donations that do come in, though. Thornton’s administrative secretary Catherine Bonang shared a document on Monday that went out to the community which provided instructions for such donations – with specific lines for where that donation should go to, and how they should be divvied up. The notice was approved by the school’s legal counsel, a hurdle that had reportedly kept the district from accepting donations in the past.

Thornton followed up on Monday afternoon to say the district was working with GoFundMe to accept those donations and that the city had been taking the reins on the Chobani donation.

The media firestorm erupted last week, in part, due to the viral nature of social media and the frustrations aired by local business owner Angelica Penta, who had tried to donate $4,000 to lessen lunch the debt as far back as January of 2019 but was turned away, reportedly because the schools had concerns about being able to distribute that money in a way that was legally acceptable and equitable among all of the 1,653 students who had accrued lunch debt in the district.

Penta turned that initial donation, which she had gathered over months from small donations at her two restaurants in West Warwick and Warwick, into more than $50,000 through one of the online campaigns mentioned above, earning her widespread praise from online community members.

Thornton said that, depending on what amount of money is actually received by the district from these donations, they would divide it up evenly across all indebted accounts. However, if the money received eclipses the total lunch debt figure, it would obviously wipe the debt clean, at least for the time being.

Policy walked back, but larger problem exposed

Although Warwick’s school lunch debt and the policy enacted to address it exploded into widespread publicity, the issue of school lunch debt in the state, or even the country for that matter, is not unique to Warwick.

According to some reports, the median debt incurred from school lunches rose from $2,000 to $2,500 per district between 2016 and 2018, according to a survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association. Neighboring Cranston reportedly has a $90,000 outstanding lunch debt. And the survey reports in Colorado, such debt reportedly rose from $13,000 across the state to $356,000 between 2016 and 2018.

“School departments have this problem – it's not a unique problem, sadly – but we have to look at it and make sure that no student gets denied a meal,” said Shekarchi during an interview Monday. “And I don't know the answer to that.” Shekarchi said that he would trust the Warwick School Committee to come up with a more lasting solution.

“This isn't rocket science here,” he said. “They can figure out how to deliver a meal and get paid for it.”

The policy in question that ignited the controversy was passed in April and included a provision that would limit students who had incurred lunch debt from being able to get any other lunch item than a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich (plus the normal sides that accompany all lunches), but only after their parents or guardians had not responded to up to four different correspondence attempts seeking payment or establishment of a payment plan – first from the school and then, starting in January, from various offices within the central administration.

Following the flood of media interest, the policy was amended during a subcommittee meeting last Wednesday, and those changes are now reflected in a docket item going before the full school committee tonight at Vets Middle School. The provision that drew national criticism has been struck from the revised policy, and they have included language that will allow the district to accept donations.

The lunch restriction portion of the policy was intended to start on Monday, but Thornton confirmed that the policy was put “on hold” pending a decision from the school committee tonight.

Reached Monday, school committee chairwoman Karen Bachus said that the committee would be identifying further ways to address the school lunch debt issue, since the underlying problem will likely not go away due to the aforementioned donations.

On the topic of those donations, Bachus said that it was a great gesture from people who were looking to help those in financial trouble, but she had concerns that it might also send the wrong message to other individuals or families that had racked up a debt despite being able to pay it off.

“I'm concerned about personal responsibility,” she said. “In many cases it may not be [the student’s] fault, but if people are financially doing okay and can afford it, I have some concerns about paying off everybody's bill. If it's for people who need it, then I have no problem, but paying peoples' bill who have the means to pay takes away that personal responsibility aspect, which is something that really concerns me.”

Bachus stressed that any family who was struggling financially, or perhaps made slightly too much money to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, should reach out and make the district aware of their situation.

“If they reach out to us, we will bend over backwards for them,” she said. “A lot of us know what it's like. There are so many working people just making ends meet. There are a lot of working poor and it's just criminal they aren't given more help and assistance.”

She mentioned that it was the people who ignored multiple warning letters about the debt, who never reached out to communicate, who would be pursued through the policy.

A la carte blanche?

Some have opined that a large part of the school debt problem in Warwick is attributed to students having the ability to build up large amounts of debt by charging various items available a la carte to their accounts, despite not actually having money in their accounts.

Thornton dispelled this notion on Monday, saying that only about $8,700 of the overall $77,000 in lunch debt was accrued via a la carte items and that half of that is attributable to students grabbing an extra milk, which costs 60 cents.

“To say a la carte is driving the bill is not supported by the numbers,” he said.

Bachus further confirmed that students have the ability to accrue small amounts of debt via a la carte items, but that they are shut off access to such items when they have debt listed on their account, preventing them from charging such items to their account. A la carte is also only available at the secondary school level.

Shekarchi felt as though a better policy is needed to address the situation.

“Forget who's charging and what they're buying. How does the school committee allow a balance to get so high?” he said. “It's almost irrelevant to me who's buying and what they're paying for. The issue is how did these balances get so high?”

Thornton agreed that more needs to be done to create a functioning policy to recover costs incurred from student lunch debt.

“I think districts around Rhode Island are looking at their policies and trying to find a measured way to work with families. At some point in time, after multiple communications, schools have to find a way to recoup some of the costs,” he said. “Warwick is in a situation now where we're millions in need, we have to have a system in place to shore up the balance.”

Comments

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Hillsgrove Hal

One thing I've noticed through this whole debacle is that there has not been a single mention of Aramark, the contractor tat the Warwick school district pays for school meals.

That's where the money is going. That's why the school department is acting like a collection agency and harassing children.

There's also been no mention that the state department of education has its own contract with a different school meal provider, and that school districts have the option to sign onto the state contract -- Warwick is not part of it.

Then again, why would the media do something boring like look into a major contract when it can just repeat the sensational parts of the story?

Tuesday, May 14
Happy

Someone with just a little, little bit of intelligence has to give me the price difference between the lunch pictured above that a child who owed money would get and what a regular lunch would be for those paid up?

WOW, it must be all of 50 cents! Only the School Committee could screw this up, amazing, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 14
justanidiot

hows much does a lucnh costs. for each meal. $2 $3 $5

Tuesday, May 14
wwkvoter

Hal great question WHY ARAMARK..or.... WHY NOT ARAMARK. Beacon needs to look into whether this was beneficial to the city to not use the state collective contractor which presumably is scaled to save each district money...

Tuesday, May 14
Gddsskb

Aramark cannot publicly comment on the matter. Each district contracts for lunch. EWG uses Sodexo. This was the same problem Chartwell’s and Sodexo had in Warwick. These are businesses with overhead. They have to be paid for services. If you owe a debt, you pay it. Where’s the money to pay back all the parents who do right by their children and don’t have the debt?

Tuesday, May 14
Mike02886

Why pay for your child's lunch now, just get others to pay. How about the extra money go towards free lunches for the kids who paid. Once again the people who do the right thing are left out.

Tuesday, May 14
Hillsgrove Hal

Gddsskb, so a private company that receives public funds is also protected from having to explain itself? What a racket.

wwkvoter, the USDA subsidizes public school meals and sends the money through RIDE, which then distributes it to each school district (as far as I can tell) based on the number of students in the district.

The towns that use the state vendor, Chartwells, are mainly in the East Bay and Washington County (again, as far as I can tell from limited online research). Your point stands, though, that Warwick may benefit from lower overall costs if it joined this larger group.

Overall, though, the main point of all this remains unaddressed: School districts are acting like collection agencies for companies to provide meals to children who are legally required to be in a school building for 7-8 hours a day, and providing the basic necessity of food has become a profit center for private corporations.

School shouldn't be piggy banks for corporations.

Wednesday, May 15
Happy

Amazing, simply amazing, we are talking about children here! They need to eat, period!

Put the food bill in the budget so that they can all eat!

Believe it or not I know teachers who provide supplies (and used to provide snacks) to students who need them but don't have them out of their own pocket!

Come on SC, don't make this any harder than it has to be.

Wednesday, May 15
Ben Dover

Message to the taxpayers is loud and clear. $19,000 per student for education is not enough. Personal responsibility for the child by parents or guardians is someone else's job, including preparing a proper lunch or breakfast or seeing that the meal provided is actually paid for...Got it. For the next gambit, dinner will now be served and a cot will be provided for sleeping overnight because it is our job to now raise the child. In true RI fashion when it comes to rules, responsibility, personal accountability we have it all ass backwards...The joke is on you taxpayers, and it will get worse.

Wednesday, May 15
justanidiot

still wood like to know how much a regular lucnh costs for a regular student

tanks

Wednesday, May 15
Cat

I think one thing should be clear. A child should not be punished for their parents actions. We have a lot of families in this state that are not able to provide meals for their children despite working 1 or 2 jobs.

In NK, they have a program called Blessings in a Backpack. It is donated food that goes home with with the student to ensure they have something to eat for dinner or over the weekend. These are children that are already being provided with free meals from the school. For some kids, the only meals they have are what is provided for them by their town/city/state. It isn't something that we should take lightly. As was stated in this article, a high percentage of the debt is not the a la carte items so can we now move on to working on the real problem? People have generously donated enough money to cover the debt and this gives us time to come up with solutions.

Honestly, if you are the ones complaining about how you do the right thing and get nothing out of it, you should be counting your blessings instead of whining. You are one of the lucky ones that have found good employment and make enough money to provide for your family. I work 1 full time job and 2 part time jobs and still struggle to make ends meet. If I had kids in the school system, I would be so grateful for the help to make sure my child isn't going hungry.

There is a lack of compassion for your neighbor when you are upset that money is being used to help others when you don't even need the help yourself. Go home, hug your family and be thankful that you are able to eat tonight. Let us all be kind and generous because there is just too little of that in the world today.

Donate and volunteer. It will open your eyes to just how many people need help in this state. You will walk away feeling humbled and blessed all at the same time.

Thursday, May 16
Happy

Cat, Spot on and well stated!

Thursday, May 16