EDITORIAL: Let them eat facts - A cautionary lesson in outrage culture

Important context missing in public response to school lunch policy

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The public outrage we have seen boil over regarding the Warwick School Department’s policy on trying to recoup about $77,000 in owed school lunch debt is a perfect example of why social media is the very antithesis of informed, practical discourse – and why it can actually lead to people being less knowledgeable than they would be if it did not exist at all.

We must first start by pointing out that this issue of school lunch debt – and the policy enacted to fight it – has not just all of a sudden happened upon the people of Warwick. This policy change went through two school committee meetings and was approved unanimously, with discussion both times, and it was posted and written about by this publication.

But it wasn’t until emails went out to parents that the policy would be beginning in earnest, and a story from one of our competitors ran earlier this week – with a somewhat misleading headline describing indebted students getting “cold sandwiches” that seemed intent on generating outrage – that people started paying attention.

Parents and opinionated community members took to Facebook, where misinformed opinions and emotional reactions germinate, grow, multiply and spread like a field of dandelions in the May sunshine.

Public involvement in the community, and interest in the goings-on within it, is a good thing – in fact, we have written multiple editorials in the past decrying the public’s general low interest in local matters. However, spreading misinformation or knee-jerk, emotion-based statements devoid of proper context or knowledge of the facts at hand does far more damage than doing nothing at all.

In this case, Facebook users spread misconstrued versions of the truth or outright falsehoods regarding the school debt collection policy. They said that the district turned down a donation that would cover the entirety of the debt, when in reality it was a $4,000 donation that was turned down for issues regarding equity and confidentiality – and they are reportedly working with their lawyers to find out how they can accept the offer.

There were comments about indebted students having lunch trays ripped from their hands, despite the fact that the lunch restriction portion of the policy doesn’t begin until this upcoming Monday. They characterized getting a sun butter and jelly sandwich as being a “shame tactic,” as if it isn’t a normal menu option that students without any lunch debt purchase every single day. They also leave out that the meal comes with a full complement of fruit, veggies, bread and a milk, like every other lunch.

The misinformation is at its worst, however, when it comes to the nature of what school lunch debt actually means.

The overwhelming reaction from those on Facebook has been decrying the school department for cracking down on poor kids and their families. Nearly 400 people have found it necessary to donate over $11,600 within a single day to an online campaign set to eradicate the debt and help these struggling families.

Unfortunately, the truth isn’t so cut and dry. The district isn’t viciously pursuing poor families. Not only have they expressed multiple times that any family struggling will never be pursued for money if they simply call and indicate their financial troubles to the school, parents get as many as four written letters warning them about their debt situation before their student has their lunch restricted.

Even more important is the fact that a vast majority of families who owe lunch money debt can seemingly afford it, but they simply haven’t paid. According to Superintendent Philip Thornton, 72 percent of the outstanding lunch debt, nearly three in four kids who owe money, are kids that are not a part of the free and reduced lunch program.

In fairness, some of these families likely qualify for the program but are perhaps unaware. So, if anything, this policy is a useful tool to help struggling families realize that they need to make a phone call and get available assistance that is utilized by 34 percent of students in the district.

All told, it is very easy to get upset thinking about things at a surface level. Sending lawyers to threaten families with the possibility of being taken to small claims court over owing money for school lunches – a provision that is free in many other first-world countries, which is a whole other issue for another day – certainly seems abhorrent. But the facts matter too, and if nearly three-fourths of kids racking up lunch debt in the system can actually afford to pay it, then that is a huge problem the schools are rightfully trying to address.

Which brings up the last point – that the policy is working. Over $14,000 of the $77,000 in total debt has been successfully collected in just two days since those emails went out warning parents that the schools were actually going to start enforcing the policy. Does this indicate that people are unable to pay? Or does it say that people have simply been taking advantage of the system? Perhaps they fall in the middle and haven’t been paying attention to it at all.

Hopefully they’re paying attention now, just not to Facebook comments.

Comments

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Hillsgrove Hal

Alternate headline:

Beacon responds to online outrage with outrage

Thursday, May 9
EMM

The problem is the cost of living in this city and state is rediculously high and MANY MANY working and middle class families barely scrape by. Lower income families get free meals, hundreds a month in foodstamps, state medical insurance, day care assistance, heating assistance, housing assistance etc...while those hovering slightly over the income guidelines do not qualify for any if those programs and pay full price for everything leaving them in worse financial situations then the "low income" families. For example, If you make 40k a year as a family of 5 you get all those benefits. If you make 45k for a family of 5 you get NONE of that. With health insurance in some cases costing families more than $500 a month alone, never mind child care costs and everything else...well you can see what happens. (These numbers are just examples and not actual guidelines.)

Also, why if a family gets several hundred dollars a month is foodstamps do they also need free breakfast and lunch? What about all the food the foodstamps bought?

Thursday, May 9
Darlene

First, your reference to the French Revolution is despicable, though apt given the reality we live in now.

What's missing from your assessment and other comments on Facebook is that the national lunch program has completely unrealistic family income guidelines, so the families who supposedly "do not qualify" and should therefore "pay up", are barely struggling to make ends meet. The maximum salary guidelines are way too low to be helpful for most struggling families. For you to quote Philip Thornton as saying that "...72 percent of the outstanding lunch debt, nearly three in four kids who owe money, are kids that are not a part of the free and reduced lunch program" is misleading. The reality is that many of the families in need make too little to make ends meet for basic needs but make too much to qualify for aid.

Let's look at the figures. For a household of 3, max salary (before taxes) to qualify for free lunch is $31,500.

Let's imagine a possible scenario for a family of 3:

apt - $1,200

car $100-$200/month

gas $80 ($20 per week)

cable/internet/home phone $95

groceries $400 ($100 per week)

before and after care $600

That adds up to needing $30,900 annually after taxes (no clothes, no toys, no cell phone, no school supplies, just the basics).

That translates to an approximate gross salary of $41,200 if you assume an average of 25% income tax. So THIS family would not qualify for aid, but they are barely squeaking by. If they also have credit card or student loan debt, they are always behind and have to pick up a 2nd or 3rd job.

Explain to me how it's unfair to help these working families? People need to stop perpetuating Reagan's stereotype of the welfare queen and look at the real reality of poverty in this country.

| Thursday, May 9
EMM

Darlene dont forget the cost of healthcare! I pay $800 month for a family of 5. Its crippling the middle class!

Thursday, May 9
Darlene

EMM - Great reminder! I completely left out health care in my quick draft. I'm sure I left out more as well. Ugh

| Thursday, May 9
Hillsgrove Hal

Let's also not forget that school lunches are provided by for-profit companies.

Maybe the policy that should be changed is having the school department operate like a collection agency for a private company.

Thursday, May 9
Darlene

Hillsgrove Hal - That is a great point about the for-profit companies running the program! It feels like every time the US decides to privatize a public program, the services get worse and the company lines its pockets.

| Thursday, May 9
Mark

Sigh. There is so much more information out there than there was a generation ago. Alas, there is less knowledge, and much less wisdom.

Thursday, May 9
Honestinfo

This is all similar to WFD nonsense. Cote, Block , Stacia and FBI accusations are just social media wack job story book accusations.

Thursday, May 9
Hillsgrove Hal

It's OK, everyone, the city can still get away with not properly funding the school department, and the schools can still exist to serve private contractors:

https://warwickpost.com/chobani-pays-low-income-warwick-student-lunch-debt/

Friday, May 10
WarwickfortheKids

Food insecurity is a well documented social determinant of health and a public health issue. Food shaming is strongly discouraged by pediatric experts due to its documented detrimental impact on children. While some of the social media comments may have be inaccurate, the vast majority of them and the public outcry has undeniably been directly related to the concern for the well being of children and the apparent lack of it by the Warwick School Department. It is a very dangerous and ignorant assumption that not qualifying for the National School Lunch Program means a family can afford it. The fact that the School Committee thoroughly vetted and passed, was ready to implement, and in some cases applauded, their policy on food shaming is at the core of the national outrage. Many other issues further escalated coverage such as refusing donations to assist families, a system that does not allow parental controls/authorization, and fees for online payment that discriminate against those that cannot afford charging large sums at one time (all of these discovered through social media conversation). While this situation should raise awareness of important children's health issues and hold our leaders more accountable for implementing systems that prioritize children, this editorial trivializes those concerns and contributes to the problems plaguing Warwick's children.

Friday, May 10
Darlene

WarwickfortheKids - Thank you! Your comments succinctly and accurately frame the issues at hand and appropriately address the danger of this editorial and its whitewashing of what the School District is doing here.

| Friday, May 10
Happy

Where is the Governor through all this? After all she heads "all" the governors in the country and wants "all" children to have FREE BREAKFAST AND LUNCH!

During a Martin Luther King Jr. scholarship breakfast in Cranston, Raimondo announced her “No Student Hungry” initiative. Raimondo wants to require public schools to also serve breakfast after the school day starts so more students have a chance to eat.

The governor's proposal requires public schools in low-income areas to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students. Governor Raimondo also wants to make it easier for low-income college students to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Saturday, May 11
DannyHall82

Can’t some of these parents prep a lunch at home?

Monday, May 13
Cat

DannyHall82

Can’t some of these parents prep a lunch at home?

If there is no money to purchase food, prepping a lunch at home isn't an option. In some cases, the only food a child eats during the week is what is provided at school. Not all of these parents are being irresponsible. It is easy to assume so based on your own life and those of your friends but unless you are living below the poverty level, you don't really know how hard it is to feed a family, pay for rent, car, insurance, etc. Thankfully, there were people out there that donated money to help. A little less judgement, a little more kindness is what we all need.

Thursday, May 16
DannyHall82

Cat, I don’t disagree with you and that’s why I said “ some”. I agree every child shouldn’t go hungry but what kind of a message are you sending by paying a bill for a family who can actually afford the lunch? I personally feel it should be provided for free, the issue is the Schools are never properly funded. The School committee should of never dropped that Lawsuit, What was won by doing that? $500K.....That’s the City’s Middle Finger to the School Committee

5 days ago