By Lauren Rearick
A Rhode Island school district announced that it is no longer moving forward with a policy that people around the country called “lunch shaming.”
On Sunday, May 5, Warwick Public Schools in Warwick, Rhode Island announced on Facebook that sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches would be the only meal option for students with an outstanding balance on their school lunch account, CNN reports. The policy, which was set to go into effect on May 13, said that if a student owed money on their lunch account, the sandwich would be “given as the lunch choice until the balance owed is paid in full or a payment plan is set up through the food service office.”
The announcement was met with a wave of backlash from parents and other concerned social media users. Some called it a “sick punishment” to penalize children if a parent was unable to provide money for lunch; another person questioned questioned, “why take it out on kids.”
In response, a woman named Cait Clement started GoFundMe to raise enough money to pay off the school district’s estimated $77,000 in lunch debt; at publish time, people had raised $50,524. (According to a Facebook post made by the district, as of May 3, 1,653 students in the district had an outstanding lunch balance. Balances reportedly ranged from $1.00 to $500.) Angelica Penta, a local business owner, told CNN that she had tried to help pay off Warwick school lunch accounts in March 2018, and accused the district of turning down her donations. Penta had collected and donated $4,000 to the district in January 2018. “I tried to give additional money to Warwick Schools, but they denied the check," she said.
For its part, the school district claimed they denied the donation because they did not want to choose which children’s accounts would be written off; in a statement provided to WJAR, the school maintained that it would be up to Penta to decide how to allocate the funds if she wanted to donate them.
Following the continued social media scrutiny, Chairwoman of the Warwick School Committee Karen Bachus announced that the Warwick School Committee Policy Subcommittee had met to review the proposed change in lunch policy. In response, the policy subcommittee “is recommending that the Warwick School Committee allow the students their choice of lunch regardless of their account status.”
The school district also said it’s working with an attorney to “accept donations in compliance with the law and that the donations are applied in an equitable manner.”
Viral social media may have ultimately contributed to the school’s reversal of their decision, but this served as another stark reminder of the inequalities that students continue to face. Unpaid school lunch balances are an ongoing, nationwide issue.
In a 2018 report from the School Nutrition Association, it was reported that nearly 75 percent of schools across the United States had unpaid student meal debt at the conclusion of the 2016 - 2017 school year. The Rhode Island Department of Education reports that 69 percent of the state’s school lunches are served free to students or at a reduced cost. As CNN explains, districts throughout the state must provide students with meals that meet nationwide nutritional standards. Students who meet certain financial requirements are eligible for a free or reduced lunch. Thirty-four percent of students enrolled at Warwick Public Schools qualify for the reduced or free lunch program.
Although school lunch debt remains a nationwide issue, organizations and lawmakers are working to change that. Social media has used crowdfunding to pay off outstanding balances, and in 2017, a bill was introduced that would have stopped schools from publicly singling out students who required lunch assistance. The bill was not passed. And a report by the Congressional Budget Office released in December 2018 suggested that an option for reducing the federal deficit could include cutting funding to childhood nutrition programs. It is not yet clear what action, if any, the government would take on such an option.