Turning a disaster into a victory


Now that the media circus has moved on to the next hot topic of the day, those of us in Warwick left in the wake of the Great School Lunch Debt Debate of 2019 can now retrospectively and proactively analyze the situation with rational minds and cooler heads.

Perhaps that is the silver lining regarding the nature of the insatiably hungry beast that is the 24/7 news industry. The beast must feast to fill its appetite, but once it has had its fill it must relocate and find another food source – leaving the host to pick its scabs and similarly move on, hopefully learning a lesson in the process about what caused the beast to focus its fangs in our direction in the first place.

In Warwick’s case, communication seems to have been the key problem. The district should have communicated better with Angelica Penta about her attempted donation all the way back in January – by all accounts, a good deed that she was trying to carry out with little success or assistance from the schools. Finding a way to accept the donation should have been easy, but for whatever reason it instead became a prolonged problem that exploded into a social media craze unlike we’ve seen.

Once the spotlight was trained on Warwick, it was already too late. With no centralized communications director or public relations person to provide guidance in how to handle such a communications-based crisis – ironically enough, such a consultant was in place until the current year budget when it was criticized out of existence – the genie was out of the bottle and the public thereby controlled the message, resulting in misinformation and misplaced outrage.

Although many school districts in Rhode Island had a similar lunch procedure that Warwick had adopted (some even worse, actually), it was Warwick who was caught in the crosshairs of an angered public, whose response showed why kneejerk, emotional reactions are not a helpful way to react to nuanced and developing issues like school lunch debt.

While we maintain that much of the reaction to Warwick’s lunch policy was wholly overblown, we do admit that the attention forced upon the district mandated decisive, quick action from the school department – and in this specific case, that has proven to be a very good thing.

This is not because we believe that the lunch restriction policy needed to be thrown out – we still contend that any student and their parents or guardians would have had more than enough fair, confidential warnings about their school lunch debt before the so-called “shaming” would ever happen – but because now the district has been forced to think bigger about how it can help prevent parents who are financially struggling from getting into debt in the first place.

The collaborative program, proposed and explained in the piece leading today’s front page, with Westbay Community Action is simply a fantastic concept. It will take the outpouring of donations and create a fund that can assist a wide range of families, particularly those who fall the cracks by making just too much money to qualify for free or reduced lunch programs. Getting them involved with Westbay will also hopefully expose more people to the great help that they can provide in other areas.

This new program was, in fairness, only an option because of the national media craze that resulted in nearly $200,000 of pledged donations to combat lunch debt in the city – although only $40,000 of those donations have actually been received at this time.

In that respect, the district should actually be thankful that the issue blew up in the way that it did. But they also deserve credit for taking what could have been a complete PR disaster and turning it into a collaborative, benevolent success story for those who most need the help in Warwick.


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