A school policy intended to help the district collect $77,000 in owed lunch debt has caused outrage and confusion on social media from parents in Warwick who are concerned that the policy shames children whose families cannot afford lunch.
The policy, which passed unanimously through the Warwick School Committee a month ago, puts in place a tiered system of written letters – first through the school principals, then through the district’s food administration office, and lastly through the school finance director personally – warning parents that their child has accrued debt on their lunch account.
According to Superintendent Philip Thornton and School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus, if a parent makes contact with the school or administration and attempts to make an arrangement at any point during the process of receiving four separate warning letters – either for a repayment plan or to get on the school’s free and reduced lunch program – they won’t be subject to further elements of the policy.
“If they're struggling, we are more than happy to do whatever we can,” Bachus said, urging such individuals to reach out to the superintendent’s office.
However, if no contact is made following the final warning letter, the child will then be restricted in their lunch choice to only a sun butter (a peanut-butter alternative that doesn’t trigger nut allergies) and jelly sandwich – which, contrary to some online comments, is a regularly offered lunch item for all students that also includes the other normal four elements of a school lunch; fruit, veggies, a grain and milk.
Thornton said on Wednesday that this method of restricting lunch choices has not been utilized at any schools yet but that they will start implementing this portion of the policy this coming Monday. The school committee’s policy subcommittee was slated to meet Wednesday evening to further discuss the policy, and it will likely be discussed in full at the next school committee meeting later this month.
The final step of the collection process involves the school’s legal counsel, who will reach out to indebted parents informing them they may be taken to small claims court to settle the debt.
In terms of pure numbers, Thornton said that as of Wednesday there were 1,653 accounts that had accrued school lunch debt (amounting to about 19 percent of the district’s some 8,700 students), some amounting to under a dollar and some over $500. In the first two days since the collection efforts have started in earnest on Monday, the schools have already collected about $14,000 in owed debt.
Thornton further said that 72 percent of the remaining debt owed comes from students who are not receiving free and reduced lunch, an important point considering accusations levied by some online that the policy is punishing students whose families are unable to afford lunches provided at schools.
“We will work with people no matter what their situation. But just thinking that you don't need to pay is a problem,” Bachus said. “A lot of these people can pay.”
According to Thornton, 34 percent of the district is on free and reduced lunch, which calculates to about 2,958 students. He said that applications are always open to parents who want to inquire about receiving free and reduced lunch and to see if they are eligible.
A GoFundMe account sprouted up on Tuesday seeking to raise the full $77,000 amount to settle the district’s lunch debt. In just one day it had begun trending on the platform and has reached over $11,600 of that goal from 319 people as of press time.
Further adding to the online outcry was reports from a local business that they had tried to donate $4,000 to Warwick Public Schools in order to help bring the overall debt down or to help out students and their families who were going through financial struggles.
Mike Penta credits his wife, Angelica, who together are co-owners of Gel’s Kitchen in West Warwick and Mike and Gel’s Pizza in Warwick, with initiating the effort to provide funding for those unable to afford a school lunch more than a year ago when she heard that a West Warwick teacher took a cheeseburger from a student and tossed it in the trash because they owed money on their lunch bill.
The issue resonates with the Pentas, as Mike was homeless as a student at Pilgrim High School. He lived out of a car with his brother until he was able to find work doing carpentry repairs for a local realtor.
“When I went to school I looked forward to that lunch,” he said. He believes many families can’t afford lunches in West Warwick and, to a lesser degree, in Warwick.
He said his wife started a fundraiser to help and with the funds raised offered to offset amounts due West Warwick and Warwick schools. He said West Warwick accepted about $4,000 but that Warwick refused on the basis of policy.
“Warwick is not in the position to say no,” reasons Penta, yet he would oppose the department taking the funds and applying them to the general fund.
He said he and his wife have applied for a non-profit designation of the Gel’s Kitchen Full Belly Fund with the intent of reviewing applications to pay for the lunches of families needing assistance.
Further, Penta is critical of the current system that enables parents to create an online account. He maintains this allows parents to fall behind on payments. He remembers the day when he bought lunch tickets for the week and he was responsible for seeing that they weren’t lost.
Angelica said on Wednesday that she tried to give the donation back in January, but was turned away by finance director Anthony Ferrucci on the basis that there was no way to distribute the money equally, and that if the district paid off some students’ debt but not others it could cause issues.
“Every suggestion I gave them they shut down,” she said. “I told them I don't care what your debt is, $4,000 is a lot of money…It's free money, why wouldn't you take it?”
She said that they are still going through the application process to become a certified nonprofit that would be able to provide assistance and that, in the meantime, any parents of Warwick students who are struggling to afford lunch should reach out to the Gel’s Kitchen Facebook page or contact them through the Gel’s Kitchen website to set up a meeting and see if they can offer some help.
“Right now, we're going on the honor system,” she said. “If anyone has a child in Warwick and is struggling through some hard times, come to me with the lunch bill. I can donate if it is going to a specific child.”
Bachus said on Wednesday that the schools were working with their legal counsel on how to accept the fund and that certain elements of how Gel’s had hoped to donate the fund arose issues regarding student confidentiality and fairness.
“We don't want to get involved in any problematic situation, but our lawyers are trying to figure out how we can legally take it,” Bachus said. “And we can't pick and choose what child is going to get money in their account and who isn't.”