School lunch debt policy draws public outcry

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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.

Debt being reduced

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.

Other aid attempts declined?

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.”

Comments

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can't believe it

Nice job Karen Backus....you handled this so well. Your ineptitude make Warwick the laughing stock of the nation.

Anyone who attended school committee meetings over the years knew you and your gang conducted yourselves like clowns and now you just proved how unqualified you are

Do the city the honor of resigning immediately.

Thursday, May 9
davebarry

The parents need to pay their debts. And what is wrong with a 'cold' sandwhich? I ate peanut butter and jelly almost everyday in school. Never had a hot lunch at school.

Thursday, May 9
Mike02886

You know you owe money on your child's lunch program. Pay it. It's great someone wants to help out. It should never come to this. Parents it is your responsibility to take care of your children. I bet the people who use the most have the newest phone , the best hand bag and what ever they need to keep playing the part of the in crowd. Your child comes before you. As we see with welfare someone is always there to take care of the ones who don't try. We are talking little money for a lunch, skip the cigarettes , the lattes, alcohol, nail salons and any unnecessary expense . Your child is all that matters.

Thursday, May 9
Hillsgrove Hal

How about we stop letting private companies profit off of school lunches and use the school department as their collection agency?

Because that's the real issue here -- the school department owes the contractor money (because the school committee agreed to a certain amount of revenue for the company to get, and didn't reach that target), and they're punishing kids to try and recoup that money.

Thursday, May 9
Patient Man

Hal,

Absolutely not. We need to keep as many private for profit companies doing business with the city as possible. We've already seen what it looks like when the Mayor & labor are sitting on the same side of the negotiations.

Thursday, May 9
Hillsgrove Hal

Really, patient man? Harassing school children to collect money is MORE reason to hand city operations over to for-profit companies?

And Solomon just had a contract rejected by the firefighters, so I don't see them on the same side.

Thursday, May 9
Scal1024

Mike02886, very well said and I think you nailed it. Some of these parents need to know what its like to sacrifice their own needs for their childs. I understand this is not the case in every household but those numbers in this article speak for themselves. Either there are an overwhelming number of parents who haven't yet filed for free or reduced lunch, or there is an overwhelming amount of parents who can afford to clear this debt and choose not to. There needs to be accountability and personal responsibility from the parents and it seems like that is very much lacking in todays society.

Thursday, May 9
Bubbaburger

Flipper, what the hell is Sunbutter? Thought that was the suntan lotion the wrinkly ladies put on at Scarborough?

Thursday, May 9
Hillsgrove Hal

Don't worry, PM, another company that benefits from public funds (in the form of tax breaks) solved the issue:

https://warwickpost.com/chobani-pays-low-income-warwick-student-lunch-debt/

Friday, May 10
ThatGuyInRI

Heres a concept, make your kids lunch or pay for your kids lunch?

Do these people get a Happy Meal at McD and get to run up a tab they'll never pay? How about the local coffee shop?

There is no shame in a (fake) PBJ, many people live their entire school years on PBJ.

Time for parents to act like adults and provide for their kids.

Time for us to stop being a nation of wimps and call accountability "lucn shaming." A little more shame would do some people good.

Friday, May 10
Patient Man

Hal,

Not this Mayor,,,,,, yet. The last Mayor was clearly not sitting on the taxpayers side of the table. Do secret side deals sound like Avedisian were representing the taxpayers? The more city services are privatized the less corruption we'll be subjected to.

Friday, May 10
Hillsgrove Hal

OK, Patient Man, thanks for clarifying that you're in favor of boosting corporate profits over feeding children.

Friday, May 10
Patient Man

Hal, Now your just being ridiculous. Whoever signs the check has nothing to do with whether the child gets fed or not. Your position advocates that taxpayers should just eat the losses. Somebody somewhere wrote that the delinquent lunch bills should be forwarded to the DMV instead of shaming the kids. I largely agree that stopping a parents vehicle registration or license renewal is better than embarrassing a child. Of course the DMv would screw it up & block the renewals of peole that don't even have kids in Warwick schools.

72% of the delinquent parents don't qualify for free or reduced lunch. They're just deadbeats that choose their drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, tattoos, etc over feeding their kids. 4 notices are sent home before the policy kicks into effect. Normal parents might forget to recharge the account. After 1 notice they pay the bill. Society does a lot for our collective children. At some point it's time for parents with the means pay for their kids lunches.

Keeping government as small as possible is crucial to keeping society affordable for everyday people. Politicians love to push costs down the road to be paid for by the children & grandchildren of the electorate the politicians have to answer to today. Private companies negotiate in good faith & come to terms in an arms length negotiations.

Friday, May 10
Hillsgrove Hal

What an amazing ability you have to know why parents aren't paying for school lunches, Patient Man!

Your name-calling and judgments are truly astounding -- especially in how they don't actually solve the issue.

Shouldn't we find better things for school staff to do than take parents to small claims court? (That is the actual plan the school committee approved last month.)

Aren't there better ways to use school staff and money than to print delinquency letters? (That is another thing the school committee approved.)

Your answer is, clearly, 'no.' You want to use government staff to collect money for a corporation.

That's a heck of a definition of 'smaller government.'

Oh, and how much of a "good faith," "arm's length" contract is it when the school district is harassing children to collect their money?

And where did I ever say I wanted government to eat the losses? The corporation is big enough to write them off -- or do you also believe that companies are automatically entitled to as much public money as possible without doing the work to collect it themselves?

But go ahead, keep crowing about "welfare" when it means feeding kids, but not when it means subsidizing corporations.

Friday, May 10
Happy

Calm down, Bachus will come to the rescue!

She just wanted to get some national attention and the donations which go along with it!

BRILLIANT IDEA!

Shortly we will have a surplus and the children will get breakfast and supper too!

Saturday, May 11
wwkvoter

The free reduced lunch program application is the way to determine who can pay but doesnt, vs those who truly have a hardship.

Sunday, May 12
John Stark

Evil Private Sector (EPS) to the rescue. Again. Maybe we can get some folks from the EPS to start working on Math and Reading scores next.

Monday, May 13
Ben Dover

We would be better served by Jim Baccus and he's been dead for over 30 years. This whole city is a financial circus and you wonder why the FBI is here?

Monday, May 13
justanidiot

don't get no thyme

if you don't pay the dime

Monday, May 13
DannyHall82

Why can’t these parents make a lunch at home? Leftovers? Something?

Monday, May 13