In the latest example of a practice sometimes called “lunch shaming,” a school district in Rhode Island has announced that it will soon give its students with unpaid lunch debt only sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches, while other students still have the option to choose from a variety of hot meals.
The decision was announced on Sunday and will go into effect on May 13, according to Warwick Public Schools. The school district, which has more than 9,000 students, has said it has 1,653 families with outstanding lunch debt. In the Providence suburb, nearly 40 percent of students have qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
A district official told the Providence Journal that the policy is necessary, as the district is owed more than $40,000 in lunch money (other officials told other local news outlets that the total is closer to $77,000) and is operating on a budget deficit in the millions. The district has said it will continue to serve the sandwiches—as others are offered hot sandwiches, salads, tacos, pizza, hummus, and even sometimes pancakes and eggs—until those students have paid their parents’ debts.
The district told the Journal that the decision targeted parents who could afford to pay for the lunches but didn’t as well as parents who are experiencing hardship and haven’t filled out paperwork to get financial assistance. According to NBC News, while many school lunches are served for free or at a reduced price based on family income, some parents have said even those who qualify for free lunches can still owe money, as children can add items to their tray, such as milk, that aren’t included in the free lunch. In other cases, as the Washington Post notes, parents’ income can just barely pass the threshold for subsidized meals, leaving the family hard hit by the full-priced meals. And some immigrant families have become afraid of the unknown consequences of asking for assistance under the current administration.
The district faced an immediate backlash from critics, who pointed out that the students should not be punished or shamed for their parents’ finances and argued that it is cruel to highlight wealth differences in a school setting. Others have noted that a jelly sandwich is not a balanced meal and that, especially in cases where children are not getting breakfast or healthy dinners outside the school day, the students’ ability to focus and perform well in classes can suffer.
One restaurant owner in Warwick said she tried donating $4,000 to help pay off the students’ debts but the district turned her offer down. The district released a statement saying that the woman had approached them “on a number of occasions” with funds she gathered from the community to pay some of the debt. “Each time these offers were made, Warwick Public Schools stated that the school department was not in the position to single out or identify specific students that should be selected for a reduction in their lunch debt while excluding others,” the district said in the statement.
The district then recommended the woman create a program to determine which students should be eligible for the debt relief before making the donations. “The business owner has maintained a position that they want to make a single, large donation to the district while leaving the student selection process to the school department,” the district said. “This is a position that the school department cannot support given the school’s mission to treat all children equitably.”
In December, schools in the neighboring Cranston hired a collection agency to track down families with outstanding school debt, according to the Journal. A bill that would mandate hot lunches for all students has been introduced to the state Legislature but not yet passed.