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A school district was accused of “lunch-shaming” policies. It’s a national problem.

Schools across the country keep making headlines for their misguided attempts to deal with past-due balances.

A tray with soup and a sandwich. Getty Images/Tetra images RF

A Rhode Island school district recently got national attention for its misguided attempt to get students to pay for past-due lunch debts. Starting this week, public school students in Warwick, Rhode Island, with unpaid lunch balances would no longer receive hot food, the district announced on Sunday. Instead, those students would receive sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches until their debts were paid.

The district scrapped the plan amid a national backlash, but Warwick schools’ attempts to deprive students of hot meals until their balances were paid off has reignited a conversation about lunch-shaming, the practice of drawing undue attention to — and in some cases punishing — students whose families can’t afford to buy their lunch.

On Wednesday, a district official said a committee had “reviewed” its policy and determined that students with past-due balances should be allowed standard hot lunches. (Students whose parents had received two notices informing them of their lunch debt would still not be allowed to purchase “à la carte options such as pizza, fries, ice cream, and other snacks.”)

The district claimed it is owed $77,000 total from 1,653 students, whose balances range from “under $1.00 to over $500.00.” It noted that students whose parents enrolled in a payment plan would have their accounts placed back in good standing, even while the balance was still being paid down.

Karen Bachus, the chair of the Warwick School Committee, told WJAR that the latest amendment to the policy that was supposed to go into effect this week was an attempt to ensure Warwick schools weren’t shaming students for not being able to afford lunch while also ensuring the district wasn’t owed money. “With this policy, we seek to find a balance between being fiscally responsible and ensuring that all our students are provided with a healthy, nutritious lunch,” Bachus said, adding that 73 percent of balances came from students who aren’t enrolled in the federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

But this comment highlights a longstanding concern that student advocates have had about the program: that it ignores the financial struggles of students whose families make slightly too much money to qualify for free or reduced lunch. Currently, students with families whose incomes fall below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or $32,630 per year for a family of four, are eligible for free lunch. Students whose families make too much to qualify for a free lunch but whose incomes fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty line are instead eligible for reduced-price lunch.

The problem is by no means limited to Warwick: As Keith Fiedler, director of nutrition services at Redmond School District in Oregon, told the nonprofit publication the New Food Economy in April, the US Department of Agriculture’s income guidelines for free and reduced lunch can leave families behind, including those in cities with a high cost of living.

According to the New Food Economy report, there’s no official national data on school lunch debt, though anecdotal evidence suggests the issue is widespread. Some districts have even started sending debt collectors after families with past-due balances, while others exclude students who owe money on their lunch accounts from extracurricular activities like field trips and school dances.

Lunch debts may sound like a local issue, but schools across the country are struggling to deal with the issue in ways that don’t punish students. The Washington Post provided a good overview:

In schools nationwide, students have been branded with stamps, given unappealing cheese sandwiches, or even had their lunches thrown away after employees discovered that they were in arrears. In 2015, a Colorado cafeteria worker said that she had been fired for giving free food to hungry elementary school students, one of whom had broken down in tears. Similarly, in 2016, a lunch worker in Pennsylvania quit in protest after she was forced to refuse a hot meal to a student because he couldn’t pay for it.

The mother of Philando Castile, the Minnesota man who was killed by police officers in his car in front of his girlfriend and daughter in 2016, donated $8,000 to a Minnesota high school to settle students’ lunch debts earlier this month. Before his death, Castile worked as a cafeteria supervisor at a Minnesota Montessori school, where he was known for paying for students’ lunches when they couldn’t afford to do so themselves. “The kids shouldn’t have a debt hanging over their heads, and the parents shouldn’t either,” Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, told NPR. “I just believe that the schools should furnish free meals for our children.”

Similar attempts to wipe out lunch debts have been made in other districts across the country, including in Warwick. Angelica Penta, a local restaurant owner, reportedly tried to donate $4,000 to help eliminate part of the district’s debt. She told WJAR her donation was turned down.

But Bachus, the school district committee chair, claims the donation was declined for a good reason. “With respect to donations, we are grateful for any financial support that has been offered,” she told the outlet. “We are working with our attorneys to ensure that we accept donations in compliance with the law and that the donations are applied in an equitable manner.”

On Tuesday, someone created a GoFundMe to pay off the total $77,000 balance. As of this writing, it has received more than $54,000 in donations. And on Thursday, the New York-based Greek yogurt brand Chobani announced it had donated $77,000 to cover the district’s lunch debts in full. Bachus, the district chairperson, said in a statement that WJAR that the district is working on a way of accepting donations and distributing them evenly.

For now, students with past-due balances at Warwick schools won’t have to resort to eating sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches, according to the district’s latest statement:

“[A]fter careful review and consideration the policy subcommittee is recommending that the Warwick School Committee allow the students their choice of lunch regardless of their account status.”

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