The Warwick School Department has finally received some of the large donations intended to reduce student lunch debt that helped make national news earlier this month, as School Committee Chairwoman Karen Bachus showed off an envelope containing $40,000-worth of checks from the CBS talk show program “The Talk” during Tuesday night’s committee meeting.
“This will help a great deal,” Bachus said, noting that they received $4,000 contributions from co-hosts Sheryl Underwood, Carrie Ann Inaba, Sharon Osbourne, Eve Jeffers Cooper and the show’s executive producer Sara Gilbert, along with a $20,000 check from CBS Studios Inc.
It is the first of the large batch of donations to actually be received by the schools, though other fundraisers were held during the blitz of media attention that beset Warwick earlier this month when a social media post from local business owner Angelica Penta – who was venting her frustrations that she couldn’t get a $4,000 donation to the schools accepted – went viral. Other contributions, including two GoFundMe campaigns that raised over $100,000 between them and a $46,750 pledge from dairy company Chobani, have yet to be received.
The $40,000 received will be distributed equally among all school debt, which as of Tuesday night’s meeting sat at $65,100 – of which about $50,000 was from students not on a free or reduced lunch program. The schools had collected $13,600 in owed debt in about three weeks since ramping up collection efforts, which also contributed to the national news attention.
Any remaining funds leftover after that initial distribution – which amounts to about $24 per each of the some 1,600 student in debt, some of which may have less than $24 in debt accrued – would be equally distributed first among students who are part of free and reduced lunch programs, as their families are likely in more need of assistance.
In the short term, the donations will certainly help, however the school department unveiled a more long-term plan Tuesday night for if, and when, those other large donations do come in, which was unanimously approved by the committee.
The schools are looking to partner with Westbay Community Action, a social services organization based in Warwick, which provides funding assistance to people who are struggling with the ability to afford things like food, clothing and heating fuel, among other programs.
Together they would create a program for school lunches, where the donations would create a nest fund that families in need could apply to and get assistance. The lunch program would be based off Westbay’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program, and would qualify families at 250 percent of the federal poverty standard that is required to qualify for free and reduced lunch.
What that means is that a family of four, who would normally only qualify for free and reduced lunch if they made a household income of $32,000 to $42,000 would potentially qualify for assistance through the new Westbay lunch program even if they made up to $62,000 a year.
The pool of money would thereby be available to all array of families – from those who are struggling even while part a free or reduced lunch program, perhaps because they accrued significant debt before they qualified for a federal program, to those who make just slightly too much to qualify for one.
“They'll be able to take care of the folks at full pay who are on that real difficult bubble – those folks who are just over the $42,000 bracket and don't qualify for reduced,” school finance director Anthony Ferrucci said.
Westbay Community Action president and CEO Paul Salera said he was approached by Ferrucci about a week ago inquiring if the organization would be open to the concept. It was a no brainer, for a variety of reasons.
“It was a win-win for us because we have assistance programs in the city that people don’t access, either because they don’t know about it or they don’t know if they qualify,” Salera said.
While the free and reduced lunch program must continue under the federal guidelines set, Salera said the schools will now be able to send home correspondence about the Westbay program, which will also ideally make them aware of their other assistance programs – including everything from heating assistance to free tax preparation – with complete confidentiality.
Ferrucci and Salera spoke about how Westbay would handle the screening and qualification process, so it would put no strain on the school department to dedicate staffing or man hours.
“They have professional case managers on staff. That's what they do,” Ferrucci said. “If a family goes to this organization looking for assistance, those case managers will be able to get out to the houses, they'll be able to communicate, they'll be able to offer them other social network opportunities that won't necessarily exist here at the school department.”
“In some cases, the parents might already be clients of ours,” Salera added, which he said would expedite the process for those families.
Although Salera said the program was in its “infancy,” he anticipates that the school department would work out how much it costs to provide a child with a hot lunch each day of the 180-day school year, and then Westbay would cut the check to the school department in that amount when a student gets approved. Students in the program would be recorded in the school’s accounting system as having a credit in that amount, allowing them to purchase lunch without them even necessarily being aware they’re a part of the program.
“This will allow us to be a lot more confidential,” he said.
Salera said that other communities in their network, such as West Warwick, who have had their own struggles with school lunch debt, are more than welcome to reach out as Warwick did to inquire about starting up a similar program, but that all funds dedicated to this endeavor specifically would go to Warwick families and students.
Salera confirmed the program could be ready to go by this August, in time to start the new school year. Ferrucci was hopeful that the program could be regularly funded by the community.
“What we really wanted to do was create a program that is sustainable over time, and we think we've come up with that solution,” Ferrucci said. “Once folks know it exists, and families are being supported, it's an opportunity to give back to the community. So, we're really excited about those prospects.”