An outpouring of financial support – from the local Rhode Island community and citizens across the country to worldwide yogurt companies and Hollywood stars like Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore – has resulted in over $150,000 in donations to cover school lunch debt in Warwick, which amounted to $77,000 at the beginning of last week.
These fundraising efforts include two GoFundMe campaigns – one started from local community members who raised $56,693 in six days from 1,288 people, and one started by a Washington D.C. resident that raised $47,846 in four days from 1,325 people – and a pledge from Chobani for $46,750 that was brokered by Mayor Joseph Solomon and House Majority Leader Rep. K. Joseph Shekarchi. Other donation figures floated include a $40,000 donation from CBS’s “The Talk,” and a $10,000 individual donation from a couple in Venus, Fla.
However, as of Monday morning none of those donations had actually been received by the Warwick School Department, according to Superintendent Philip Thornton.
“Nothing has come in as of this hour,” Thornton said via phone interview.
This does not mean that they will not be accepting any donations that do come in, though. Thornton’s administrative secretary Catherine Bonang shared a document on Monday that went out to the community which provided instructions for such donations – with specific lines for where that donation should go to, and how they should be divvied up. The notice was approved by the school’s legal counsel, a hurdle that had reportedly kept the district from accepting donations in the past.
Thornton followed up on Monday afternoon to say the district was working with GoFundMe to accept those donations and that the city had been taking the reins on the Chobani donation.
The media firestorm erupted last week, in part, due to the viral nature of social media and the frustrations aired by local business owner Angelica Penta, who had tried to donate $4,000 to lessen lunch the debt as far back as January of 2019 but was turned away, reportedly because the schools had concerns about being able to distribute that money in a way that was legally acceptable and equitable among all of the 1,653 students who had accrued lunch debt in the district.
Penta turned that initial donation, which she had gathered over months from small donations at her two restaurants in West Warwick and Warwick, into more than $50,000 through one of the online campaigns mentioned above, earning her widespread praise from online community members.
Thornton said that, depending on what amount of money is actually received by the district from these donations, they would divide it up evenly across all indebted accounts. However, if the money received eclipses the total lunch debt figure, it would obviously wipe the debt clean, at least for the time being.
Although Warwick’s school lunch debt and the policy enacted to address it exploded into widespread publicity, the issue of school lunch debt in the state, or even the country for that matter, is not unique to Warwick.
According to some reports, the median debt incurred from school lunches rose from $2,000 to $2,500 per district between 2016 and 2018, according to a survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association. Neighboring Cranston reportedly has a $90,000 outstanding lunch debt. And the survey reports in Colorado, such debt reportedly rose from $13,000 across the state to $356,000 between 2016 and 2018.
“School departments have this problem – it's not a unique problem, sadly – but we have to look at it and make sure that no student gets denied a meal,” said Shekarchi during an interview Monday. “And I don't know the answer to that.” Shekarchi said that he would trust the Warwick School Committee to come up with a more lasting solution.
“This isn't rocket science here,” he said. “They can figure out how to deliver a meal and get paid for it.”
The policy in question that ignited the controversy was passed in April and included a provision that would limit students who had incurred lunch debt from being able to get any other lunch item than a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich (plus the normal sides that accompany all lunches), but only after their parents or guardians had not responded to up to four different correspondence attempts seeking payment or establishment of a payment plan – first from the school and then, starting in January, from various offices within the central administration.
Following the flood of media interest, the policy was amended during a subcommittee meeting last Wednesday, and those changes are now reflected in a docket item going before the full school committee tonight at Vets Middle School. The provision that drew national criticism has been struck from the revised policy, and they have included language that will allow the district to accept donations.
The lunch restriction portion of the policy was intended to start on Monday, but Thornton confirmed that the policy was put “on hold” pending a decision from the school committee tonight.
Reached Monday, school committee chairwoman Karen Bachus said that the committee would be identifying further ways to address the school lunch debt issue, since the underlying problem will likely not go away due to the aforementioned donations.
On the topic of those donations, Bachus said that it was a great gesture from people who were looking to help those in financial trouble, but she had concerns that it might also send the wrong message to other individuals or families that had racked up a debt despite being able to pay it off.
“I'm concerned about personal responsibility,” she said. “In many cases it may not be [the student’s] fault, but if people are financially doing okay and can afford it, I have some concerns about paying off everybody's bill. If it's for people who need it, then I have no problem, but paying peoples' bill who have the means to pay takes away that personal responsibility aspect, which is something that really concerns me.”
Bachus stressed that any family who was struggling financially, or perhaps made slightly too much money to qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, should reach out and make the district aware of their situation.
“If they reach out to us, we will bend over backwards for them,” she said. “A lot of us know what it's like. There are so many working people just making ends meet. There are a lot of working poor and it's just criminal they aren't given more help and assistance.”
She mentioned that it was the people who ignored multiple warning letters about the debt, who never reached out to communicate, who would be pursued through the policy.
Some have opined that a large part of the school debt problem in Warwick is attributed to students having the ability to build up large amounts of debt by charging various items available a la carte to their accounts, despite not actually having money in their accounts.
Thornton dispelled this notion on Monday, saying that only about $8,700 of the overall $77,000 in lunch debt was accrued via a la carte items and that half of that is attributable to students grabbing an extra milk, which costs 60 cents.
“To say a la carte is driving the bill is not supported by the numbers,” he said.
Bachus further confirmed that students have the ability to accrue small amounts of debt via a la carte items, but that they are shut off access to such items when they have debt listed on their account, preventing them from charging such items to their account. A la carte is also only available at the secondary school level.
Shekarchi felt as though a better policy is needed to address the situation.
“Forget who's charging and what they're buying. How does the school committee allow a balance to get so high?” he said. “It's almost irrelevant to me who's buying and what they're paying for. The issue is how did these balances get so high?”
Thornton agreed that more needs to be done to create a functioning policy to recover costs incurred from student lunch debt.
“I think districts around Rhode Island are looking at their policies and trying to find a measured way to work with families. At some point in time, after multiple communications, schools have to find a way to recoup some of the costs,” he said. “Warwick is in a situation now where we're millions in need, we have to have a system in place to shore up the balance.”