A cash-starved Rhode Island school district accused of “lunch shaming” is backing away from a plan that would have taken hot meals from students in arrears with the cafeteria, and substituted a cold sunflower butter and jelly sandwich in its stead.
Officials from the Warwick Public Schools district notified parents last weekend that beginning Monday, students who had fallen behind in payments on their lunch accounts would not receive a hot meal until they had settled their children’s past due balances.
As word of the decision spread throughout Warwick — the second largest city in Rhode Island, about 12 miles south of Providence — parents angrily denounced the plan. About 600 Facebook comments condemned the policy that could have led to embarrassing “lunch shaming.”
Local outrage went national, as news reports about the policy circulated in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and network news broadcasts. Hollywood celebrities — actor Alec Baldwin and filmmaker Michael Moore — offered to donate money to the district. And on Thursday, the Chobani yogurt company said it would donate nearly $50,000 to buy meals for the Warwick school children.
Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate secretary at the National Council of Churches in Washington, D.C., was among those drawing unfavorable attention to the Warwick school lunch issue, raising it Wednesday during a keynote address at the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty’s annual conference in Providence.
“That is just not acceptable, and that should bring outrage, outrage, to a group of people who are working on poverty issues,” Alexander said in her remarks, which grabbed the attention of local clergy who vowed to press the issue.
Rev. Donnie Anderson of the Rhode Island Council of Churches said the school district changed its mind before the religious leaders could lobby against the policy.
“I think it’s ironic that the national media did to the Warwick schools what they were planning to do to the children,” Anderson said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “They shamed the schools into reversing that crazy policy.”
Karen Bachus, chair of the Warwick School Committee, the district’s elected school board, said the district retreated from its plan following a public outcry that drew negative national attention to the 9,100-student school district.
“After listening to the thoughts, concerns, and opinions of individuals in Warwick and nationwide, along with careful review and consideration, the Policy Subcommittee is recommending that the Warwick School Committee allow students their choice of lunch regardless of their account status,” Baucus said in a statement announcing the committee decision.
“This will prevent any emotional upset for our students and make certain that all of our students receive at least one nutritious meal every day at school.”
Over the years, an increasing number of school districts across the country have instituted policies to withhold food from children to make their parents pony up the money to support the cost of providing meals. In some cases, cafeteria workers reportedly allow students to stand on lunch lines and get hot meals, only to deny them at the cashier station and brazenly throw away their food.
Caitlin Dolan, then a seventh-grade student in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, told The New York Times that she passed through the lunch line on the first day of school in 2017 with a tray of pizza, cucumber slices, an apple and chocolate milk. But when the lunch-line cashier realized she had an unpaid bill from the previous year, her lunch was taken away and tossed in a trash can.
“I was so embarrassed,” Caitlin told the newspaper, adding her classmates stared at her during the ordeal. “It’s really weird being denied food in front of everyone. They all talk about you.”
In an interview with Think Progress, Baucus said school officials came up with the now-discarded plan under pressure to close a fiscal gap stemming from the cost of providing school lunches to some children whose parents can’t or refuse to pay for their child’s meal.
Baucus said the district faced a $77,000 deficit in its school lunch budget. Since then, she said, some parents have made arrangements with the district to pay $14,000 of the shortfall, but the larger balance remains unaccounted.
Nevertheless, the Warwick school committee met on Wednesday and reversed the plan. “We have never and will not be going forward with a plan that would have children go through the lunch line, get their food and have it thrown in the trash at the cashier station,” Bachus told Think Progress.
“We found that preposterous and outrageous, and when we learned that was the plan we put a stop to it. That’s not happening.”