After a major public outcry, Warwick Public Schools in Rhode Island is pulling back on its threat to serve sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches to students with delinquent lunch accounts. The 9,000-student district will continue to give all students a full lunch regardless of their account status, NBC News reports.
Though the decision has been retracted, administrators have not reached a permanent solution. They will meet Tuesday to decide how to proceed.
Currently, the district has 1,600 students with lunch debt that ranges from $1 to $500, totaling $77,000. The cold sandwich threat issued by the district generated about $14,000 of the debt to be recovered.
Districts around the country are struggling to keep students fed despite growing lunch debt. In Rhode Island, districts are required to provide lunch to all students regardless of their ability to pay. In the Warwick district, about 34% of students are on the free or reduced-price lunch program, but those students can still accumulate debt by adding à la carte items, the article says.
While the cold sandwich threat was enough to get some parents to settle their child’s lunch debt, singling a student out with a cold sandwich has been labeled in recent years as a form of lunch shaming and brings attention to the fact that a student’s family may be struggling financially.
Districts are trying to move away from such practices, but lunch debt is a growing financial burden for districts. Between 2016 and 2018, the amount of lunch debt soared to a national average of $2,500 per district. Some districts have found help among members of the community. For example, in 2017 a Denver nonprofit and Denver business owner teamed up to pay off the entire $14,000 lunch debt that had accrued for the city’s students the previous year.
Often, those with lunch debt qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Once a child’s account becomes delinquent, districts can save money by stepping in and offering assistance with applying. Districts are also looking at ways to reduce food insecurity when school is not in session. Creative solutions like summer food delivery trucks, in-school food pantries and corporate donations are all making dents in the childhood hunger problem.