Unpaid school lunches up 500 percent

Posted 12/13/18

By ETHAN HARTLEY -- The Warwick School Committee decided last year that it would no longer force students who were delinquent on lunch payments to eat a SunButter and jelly sandwich. It was considered by some to be controversial...

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Unpaid school lunches up 500 percent


The Warwick School Committee decided last year that it would no longer force students who were delinquent on lunch payments to eat a SunButter and jelly sandwich. It was considered by some in the community to be a “shaming” tactic, as a student could, in theory, have been identified as not having money for lunch based on their limited selection.
The result of the change? The budget line item that tracked how much the district owed in unpaid lunch fees jumped 500 percent, from around $9,000 in June of 2017 to around $45,000 in June of 2018.
Now, the school committee is actively discussing whether or not they will re-institute the old policy, which would once again restrict students to a limited selection of a singular lunch choice and put pressure on consistently delinquent parents that have racked up high lunch debts. The policy reintegration was given a first reading during the Nov. 20 meeting of the school committee, but was tabled until the meeting in January during Tuesday night.
This means that the newly elected school committee – on which three new members will be instilled – will take up this as one of the first major decisions to make when they are sworn in.
From the administration’s perspective, the policy change would give some teeth back to enable them to collect money that simply needs to be paid. Without any recourse to put pressure on delinquent accounts, there isn’t much to be done to try and collect it – as evidenced by the huge jump in owed money from 2017 to 2018.
“Some students, the only thing that resonated was, ‘Why do I have to have a cheese sandwich when I want a burger?’ That made the parents pay attention,” said finance director Anthony Ferrucci during a recent interview.
The sandwich in question – historically a cheese sandwich, as mentioned by Ferrucci, was utilized – has changed (SunButter is the modern, hypoallergenic choice). But what also has changed, and would be the case with this proposed policy, is that the SunButter and jelly sandwich is a regular lunch item. It would not, by itself, out a student as being delinquent or unable to afford other options.
“No child should go hungry, but a SunButter and jelly sandwich includes milk and everything else that a regular meal includes and it is actually on the menu,” said Karen Bachus, School Committee Clerk during the Nov. 20 meeting. “So, it’s not an issue where somebody’s child gets SunGutter and nobody else gets SunButter.”
The policy would also put in place a lenient system of multiple written and telephoned notifications prior to the student being limited to only the SunButter sandwich, and plenty of chances for setting up a payment remediation plan prior to school going for the nuclear option – which would be to forward consistently delinquent accounts to a debt collection agency that would then go after the parents of such accounts to collect moneys owed.
Bachus, who sits on the committee’s policy committee, said she would support the policy change because getting rid of the policy clearly had a significantly negative impact on how many people began to subvert paying for lunches. She also agreed with the system of notification that would alert parents multiple times prior to taking any real action.
“It gives them time, the family and parents know by then, they will be contacted,” she said. “And if they choose not to contact us to set up some sort of payment plan, then they are in fact, if you ask me, shaming their own children and themselves.”
School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado agreed, saying that some of her own grandchildren prefer the SunButter sandwich over other options anyways, and that if parents need help paying for lunches, they likely qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and need to get that process started, to which Bachus agreed as well.
“The Warwick School Dept is losing a great deal of money,” Bachus said. “If children are eligible, then they will get free or reduced lunch. We need more parents to sign up for that.”
School committee member David Testa arose concerns about how the school principals would track delinquent accounts and how the schools would handle a situation where a delinquent student chose lunch items besides the SunButter sandwich – how would the school address the problem once the student got to the kiosk to pay? Nonetheless, he recognized the issue needed some resolution.
“It’s a problem,” he said. “There’s no question it’s a problem.”
Ferrucci said, at this time, it was his responsibility to let the school committee hear out the concerns of the public and then make a decision they feel is best.
“I basically have tried to step aside and say just tell me what you want me to police,” he said.


4 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • richardcorrente

    Maybe the students should have a lunch card that allows a certain amount of money off ANY lunch. If they have the difference, they can buy a burger. If not, at least they have a nutritious lunch such as the popular Sunbutter and jelly lunch that is on the menu, and most of their fellow students won't notice or care.

    Just a thought.

    Merry Christmas everyone.

    Rick Corrente

    The Taxpayers Mayor

    Thursday, December 13, 2018 Report this

  • davebarry

    I WANT MY TAXPAYER MONEY COLLECTED. These deadbeat parents must pay up. Stop giving away our money. Now!!!!

    Friday, December 14, 2018 Report this

  • cnolan9

    It always helps to explore the "why" something wasn't/isn't being done before needlessly bulldozing over the situation. Has anyone in the city asked parents why they are not paying back their children's lunch bills yet? Most of the time its simply miscommunication that's the culprit.

    The article suggested perhaps parents cannot afford to pay, for instance. Can't something be done about that? Where I live, we have a free in-house resource/case worker available once a week who we can go to for all sorts of aid programs average people don't even know exist. Could a person from state financial supplement programs be made available at schools or libraries the first two months of each school year for parents to sign up for school lunch help? (For instance, URI has a volunteer program which helps people navigate the SNAP program. They are wonderful!) Maybe one meeting could be held at night, too? Bring the programs to them. Parents are very busy, and most work during the day. You cannot expect them to come to you if they don't know there's a solution. Even a simple informational flyer sent to every child's home would be better than denigrating folks who might be struggling without knowing why the money isn't being paid back. Parents have enough on their plates today without resorting to meanness.

    The reason why kids are lining up for a free Sunbutter and jelly sandwich just might be.... because they simply like them! Not because their families cannot afford school lunch. Some of those kids just might be keeping that lunch money, too. Whatever happened to the token system? Parents had to pre-pay for lunch tokens once a month. Always worked when I was in school way back when.

    Friday, December 14, 2018 Report this

  • Cat2222

    Warwick played nice and look where it got them? The main goal is to make sure the child isn't going hungry. The parents have taken advantage of the generosity and SHOULD be penalized. If the parent receives multiple notifications and have chosen not to respond, they are indeed the root cause of the problem.

    If no child goes hungry and all the children like this particular sandwich then it is time to remove the other choices. These are life lessons being learned - apparently by both parent and child. Folks, Warwick tried it and it failed. It is time to recoup the lost money and stop this stupidity. Once again, if you play by the rules and do what is right you get stepped on by those that think the rules don't apply to them.

    NO ONE is that busy that they don't realize their child needs money for lunch. If it is a dire financial issue then most people would be motivated to get it straighten out for their child. What does it really say if there is zero response? Stop making this every other tax paying citizens' problem when it should be your problem alone.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2018 Report this