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School district’s menu item for students with lunch debt causes controversy

WARWICK, R.I. – A Rhode Island school district’s new policy of denying hot lunches to students with outstanding lunch debts is creating controversy after officials announced it on social media.

Warwick Public Schools posted the following on Facebook:

Effective Monday, May 13, 2019, if money is owed on a paid, free, or reduced lunch account a sun butter and jelly sandwich will be given as the lunch choice until the balance owed is paid in full or a payment plan is set up through Bev Burd in the food service office.

Heather Vale, the mother of two Warwick middle school students, told WLNE she thought it was unfair for the children to bear the burden of the new policy.

“I think it’s embarrassing to the kids because now everyone’s going to know why these children are receiving the lunch that they are,” Vale said.

The policy is the product of the Warwick School Committee, and officials say it’s in response to the tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid lunches.

The School Committee’s chairwoman, Karen Bachus, told The Providence Journal the district has lost more than $40,000 during the current budget year, and the shortfall “is getting worse.”

She said the policy is meant to target parents who can afford to pay for the lunches but aren’t doing so, as well as parents who can’t afford them but haven’t filled out the forms to receive assistance.

Related: Teen raises over $10K to pay off other students’ debt, combat ‘lunch shaming’ 

The explanation wasn’t enough for some in the community, like restaurant owner Angelica Penta, who gave the district a $4,000 check to pay for lunches.

“There is no need for any child to be denied a hot lunch,” Penta said in a Facebook post. “We never know a child’s or their family’s situation; everyone struggles at some point.”

Penta said the school accepted her check, but said it would only be applied at the end of the year so individual parents wouldn’t be upset their debt wasn’t paid for, according to WPRI.

Warwick Public Schools serve more than 9,000 students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Rhode Island law mandates that public schools provide lunches, but there is no language requiring a hot lunch option.

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