Lunch shaming is an issue that goes viral. And fast. People immediately react emotionally to children being forced to wear the scarlet letter of a sun butter sandwich because their parents have not paid their lunch bills.
Welcome to Warwick, Rhode Island where the school committee began implementation of an alternative lunch program this week for students whose parents have ignored all attempts at communication by the food service company. The decisive factor in being placed on team sun butter is not debt—it is the repeated unwillingness to communicate in any way with the food service company, even after receiving a certified letter delivered to the home.
Raise your hand if you read that in any of the outlets who jumped at the chance to be part of the media firestorm.
The depressingly unsurprising fact is that almost no one posting, tweeting, or publishing national stories about what’s happening in Warwick has taken the time to get even a small percentage of the facts. Reasonable people can certainly disagree over what tactics are—and are not—acceptable in trying to get parents to pay up, but vilifying a school district without knowing the details is irresponsible and lazy and, if I may say, so on brand for 2019.
35 percent of Warwick students qualify for free/reduced lunch. Plenty of the lunch debt is held by parents who can and should pay.
According to district officials who have manually crunched the numbers, 72 percent of the students with outstanding debt (and whose parents have not responded to any of the communications) DO NOT qualify for the free/reduced lunch program. 28 percent of them do.
1,653 lunch accounts have been flagged and shifted into the alternative lunch category—the sun butter and jelly sandwich. These accounts range from as little as $1 up to $500. In many cases, students are running up debt buying chips and ice cream sandwiches in the a la carte line, not filling their bellies with the school lunch that people online suddenly seem to think are so nutritious. A corndog? A chicken patty?
Kid favorites that organic foodie types normally sneer at have quickly morphed into the battle cry symbols of a nutritious and hearty meal — an Aramark sun butter and jelly sandwich, however, is not worthy of any of our children. It is not only not nutritious enough but it is a weapon of shame.
The sun butter and jelly sandwich meal is already a daily menu option—it includes the sides —fruit and vegetable—and a milk. Those spreading the rumor that students on the list will be handed a sandwich with nothing else are, predictably, mistaken.
Some more very important facts:
If a family has communicated with food services —even if only to set up a payment plan of $1 per week—their child is exempt from being relegated to Team Sun Butter. They can continue to get hot lunches because, again, the decisive factor is communication. Not debt.
A juicy part of the story that the media has predictably run with is a local restaurant owner who offered to donate $4,000 to help chip away at the lunch debt. The total lunch account debt is $77,000. And the district can’t accept money from someone who is raising money in the name of the school district but does not have 501c3 status. We’ve all seen stories in the news about people who raise money for a cause and then keep either some or all of the money. I am not at all implying that is the case here but organizations, including school districts, are right to be wary.
It should come as no surprise that the national media attention has led to people from all over kingdom come offering to help pay down Warwick’s lunch debt—even though much of their generosity will go to parents who an afford to pay for their own children’s lunches and have ignored every communication from the food service company. The district is now looking at ways it can “properly” accept outside donations without running into potential procedural hurdles down the road, likely a GoFundMe account or something similar.
While reasonable people disagree about the withholding of hot lunch as a lever for getting parents to pay, it is interesting to note that in the first 2 days of the draconian sun butter and jelly sandwiches, the food service company received $14,000 of the $77,000 owed to them. So, from a financial perspective, the strategy appears to be working—the problem is that from a public relations perspective, the school committee has walked straight into the pits of hell.
And it is true that many do not believe that the child should pay for the sins of the parent. A friend of mine who heard about the story all the way from California shared her thoughts:
I don’t think it matters whether the parents are affluent or poor. I don’t like the kids paying for the sins of the parents or the district. I feel that this approach by the district is not a good solution.
It seems like a reasonable debate to have but most already having it—and setting up GoFundMe accounts from around the country —seem to be woefully ignorant about the facts of the story.
And facts matter.
Update: Now that every major news outlet has reported the story—albeit badly—and Alec Baldwin and Sharon Osborne have stepped up to pay the lunch debts of low income and high income folks, the school committee has reversed course and decided not to implement its own policy. A la carte items (french fries, ice cream sandwiches, chips) will no longer be available to those who haven’t communicated with the district about their bill but the hot lunch will be. Good to know that celebrities are willing to pay for the lunch bills of 6-figure-income families who got busy and forgot to replenish their kids’s lunch accounts.
The Warwick school committee chair released a statement yesterday——it includes a lot of details as well as an explanation of how they plan to handle the situation moving forward. I suspect other districts are watching closely since most of them have the same policy in place and are carrying large amounts of lunch debt. Warwick saw a 500% increase in unpaid lunch bills in the past year—largely because student lunch accounts now function as de facto credit cards.