Students who owe lunch money in Rhode Island district will get jelly sandwiches until debt is paid

Warwick Public Schools, which has more than 9,000 students, said the district-wide policy will go into effect on May 13.

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

Students at a Rhode Island school district who owe money on their lunch accounts will have the sole option of a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich until they are able to pay their balances, the district announced Sunday.

Warwick Public Schools, which has more than 9,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, said the district-wide policy will go into effect on May 13.

"If money is owed on a paid, free, or reduced lunch account a sun butter and jelly sandwich will be given as the lunch choice until the balance owed is paid in full or a payment plan is set up," said a post from the district on Facebook.

Warwick School Committee chairwoman Karen Bachus told NBC News that the sandwiches are served with the vegetable of the day, a fruit and milk.

Public schools in Rhode Island are mandated by state law to provide lunches to students.

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Nearly 70 percent of school lunches in Rhode Island are served for free or at a reduced price based on family income, according to the state. But some parents who commented on the announcement from Warwick Public Schools said even though they qualify for free lunches, their children still owed money because they had added something to their trays that wasn't included with the free lunch, like extra milk.

Other parents noted that the policy of giving out jelly sandwiches to students who owed money would likely leave those children embarrassed and prone to bullying. "This is absolutely awful. Our schools shouldn't be in the business of shaming children," one person wrote beneath the Facebook announcement.

"Just give the kids lunch. ... we cant spring for a chicken patty for a hungry kid? What if this is their only meal of the day?" another commenter to the post asked.

The sunflower butter and jelly sandwich is an option on the regular lunch menu that many students opt for anyway, Bachus said.

"Before we used to give a cheese sandwich which did single them out, but now we've gone with an on-the-menu meal," she said. "So what's wrong with that?"

Bachus said that the district implemented the new policy because it is owed more than $78,000 on account of outstanding lunch payments. She said more than 1,600 students in the district of 8,700 owe money.

"We have sent out letters and certified letters to every family," Bachus said. "All they have to do is contact us to try to work it out."

The issue is not specific to Warwick. More than 75 percent of schools reported that they were owed money for lunches at the end of the 2016/2017 school year, according to the non-profit School Nutrition Association. And 40 percent of schools reported that the amount of students without adequate funds to pay for lunch had increased during the same school year.

The association said that schools found they were able to help parents and students by allowing them to pay outstanding funds online, reminding them about low balances and taking advantage of charitable donations.

Warwick Public Schools, meanwhile, refused a $4,000 donation offered to them from a local restaurant owner, Angelica Penta. "I have met with Warwick twice and the second time I left in tears after they refused to take a $4,000 check," she wrote on Facebook.

Penta raised the money by setting up a donation jar at her restaurant, Gel’s Kitchen.

The district said in a statement that it didn't take the donation because they didn't want to be responsible for allotting which students the money benefited. "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 statement said, according to NBC affiliate WJAR.

A statement released by the district Wednesday said they are working with attorneys to "ensure that we accept donations in compliance with the law and that the donations are applied in an equitable manner."