The Warwick School Committee officially reversed course Tuesday on a policy that was enacted in April which sought to reduce a nearly $80,000 lunch debt problem in the district, but instead drew a firestorm of national media attention that placed Warwick at the center of a renewed discussion about lunch shaming across the country.
With a unanimous vote the committee revised the provision of the policy that would, after multiple attempts to contact the parent or guardian of a student who had accrued debt and attempting to get them to pay or set up a payment plan, restrict the student to only being able to get a sun butter and jelly sandwich meal when they buy lunch from the school.
It was actually the second time the district had passed such a policy in recent years. The school committee two years ago did away with a version of the same policy due to similar local outcry about how the policy unfairly singled out kids whose families may be in a dire economic situation, which critics argued should not be a burden borne by the child.
However, it was after rescinding that policy that school lunch debt shot up from just under $10,000 as of June 30, 2017 to just under $80,000 this year – which led the new school committee voted in last November to review the issue and ultimately pass the policy again this past April, which drew no headlines or even many public comments regarding the issue.
That changed when local businesswoman Angelica Penta brought attention to her unsuccessful efforts to donate $4,000 to the district to help cut down the overall debt, going back to January of this year. Frustrated with the response she received from the central administration, Penta took to Facebook to air her grievances, which ultimately resulted in the issue going viral and capturing the attention of national news outlets and celebrities like Michael Moore and Alec Baldwin.
“I had no idea that it would get national attention or blow up the way that it did,” Penta said during public comments during Tuesday night’s meeting. “But I'm glad that it did, because we are bringing awareness to everybody about this problem. I know that this whole state has a problem now. I wasn't aware that this happened everywhere.”
Speaking to that point was Jacob Madore, a 2016 graduate of Warwick Veterans High School, who believed that Warwick was unfairly put in the crosshairs of the controversy, despite many other districts in Rhode Island having similar school lunch policies.
“Out of these 22 districts that I looked up, approximately half of them have the exact same policy. Where was the media outrage there? It didn't exist,” he said, pointing that neighboring Cranston only provides a sun butter sandwich – not even with jelly added – if a student racks up five meals without paying. He said Coventry gives the option of sun butter and jelly or a cheese sandwich after a student fails to pay for three lunches, and Smithfield enacts a similar policy when a student accrues $10 in lunch debt.
“I'm just astounded,” he continued. “This isn't a Warwick issue, but shame on Warwick? Well, shame on everyone who just drew their own conclusions and didn't look anything up.” Where does Warwick go from here? With the policy rescinded, students will not be restricted from getting a menu item of their choice, but the district is still required to provide a lunch to a student who asks for one – regardless of whether they have no debt or thousands in debt accrued.
The problem remains apparent, despite over $150,000 in donations pledged to be coming to the district in the wake of the widespread publicity regarding the issue. It should also be noted that, as of Tuesday night’s meeting, Chairwoman Karen Bachus reported that the district had received just $101 in donations.
The donations have been heralded by critics of the lunch policy, but some have concerns regarding the message that simply wiping the slate clean may send – especially on the portion of the indebted that were not a part of the district’s free or reduced lunch program, which accounted for 72 percent of the debt.
“My point is simply that we can take all the donations in the world, but the largest part of this problem is personal responsibility,” said committee member David Testa on Wednesday. “The more donations that come in, I think human nature being what it is, the less apt people are to pay their bill.”
Testa said he saw multiple sides of the issue and recognized the validity of them. He said students shouldn’t bear the responsibility for parents who send them to school with no lunch and no means to pay for it, and that some families are in legitimate economic peril but fall just above the threshold for federal help – but also that the district also has to be able to recoup money from parents who can afford to pay, but simply do not.
“The child would presumably go home and say there's no money in the account, and then it would be taken care of,” he said of the reasoning behind the lunch restriction portion of the policy. He clarified that, before the policy would ever get to that point, the student and their parents would have been privately notified by the school principal that their account had accrued debt.
“Once you went away from that, the debt went out of control,” Testa continued. “I'll leave it to anybody else to hypothesize as to why.”
Testa said that work remains on the district side to better collaborate with parents who want support, either by showing them how they can restrict their children from purchasing certain items via the school’s computer system, or work with them to set up individualized payment plans that work with their specific financial situation.
“If we're not going to go the route of an alternative meal, I'm fine with that,” he said. “But then everybody needs to understand we need to get a little tougher on collection. There's no perfect solution here, but the debt is the debt, and we have to pursue options to pay it… We should work with families as much as possible.”
Bachus said on Wednesday that, if all the pledged donations come in – which would by far eclipse the actual overall debt – she was interested in starting up a specialized fund from the remaining donations that would provide additional support to parents who were just over the federal threshold for being eligible to receive free and reduced lunch.
“How can you raise a family of four on $34,000?” Bachus said at the meeting. “It's a ridiculous proposal.”
Penta was hopeful that the widespread attention to the issue would result in a beneficial ending, and a better policy for the district.
“I'm glad that I was a voice for these children and this situation that they can't control,” she said. “I'm hoping that all the money being donated because of this will definitely be going to the lunches and not to the general fund somewhere, and that we can put a plan in place so that this won't happen again next year. Hopefully Warwick can come up with a great plan and all the other cities and towns can follow in their footsteps. I understand there is negative, but let's make this a positive and let's make Warwick be the leaders in this change.” Ramping up collection efforts coming next? Tabled at the meeting was a measure specifying how the district would take families with the highest debt to small claims court if they do not provide payment.
Bachus explained holding the measure was only temporary, and that it would likely come up for discussion next month, but that “there's enough controversy [about this issue] and we didn't need to create more last night.”
The item broke down how the debt has been accrued, including the number of accounts in debt and what they owed as of May 9, 2019.
The vast majority of the 1,624 accounts in debt, which adds up to a roughly $69,500 total debt in the district following a week of collections coming in, were in debt by less than $50. There were 1,301 such accounts, of which 831 (63 percent) did not qualify for free and reduced lunch.
There were 122 accounts with balances between $50 and $100; 99 with accounts in debt by $100 to $200; 52 with $200 to $300 in debt; 25 between $300 and $400; 13 with balances between $400 and $500; and 11 accounts in debt by an amount over $500. The highest balance of debt in the district is an account $872.90 in arrears, which is an account that is also not eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Whether those accounts that don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch are the result of people being just over the threshold of free and reduced lunch or are parents who are simply failing to pay for their child’s lunch despite being within their means to do so is difficult to quantify. Regardless, there was a clear consensus among the committee that the latter must be held accountable.
“I'm fortunate enough that if my daughter wants to buy lunch, we can pay for it,” Testa offered. “For the parents that can afford to pay, and don't, that's unconscionable to me.”