Students who owe lunch money won't be stuck with jelly sandwiches as district changes course

"We seek to find a balance between being fiscally responsible and ensuring that all our students are provided with a healthy, nutritious lunch," a school official in Warwick, R.I., said.

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

A Rhode Island school district's plan to limit students' lunch option to only a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich if they owed money on their lunch accounts won't go into effect Monday as planned after a wave of public scrutiny.

Warwick Public Schools, which has more than 9,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, said Wednesday that the district's policy committee is urging the Warwick School Committee to "allow the students their choice of lunch regardless of their account status."

On Sunday, the district announced that, starting May 13, students with lunch debt would have the sole option of a Sunbutter and jelly sandwich "until the balance owed is paid in full or a payment plan is set up." The sandwich would be accompanied by a fruit, vegetable and milk, and is an option for all students on the standard lunch menu, the district later clarified.

Warwick School Committee chairwoman Karen Bachus told NBC News that the policy would not be enacted Monday, and school officials plan to meet Tuesday to discuss how to move forward.

"We seek to find a balance between being fiscally responsible and ensuring that all our students are provided with a healthy, nutritious lunch," Bachus said in a statement.

More than 1,600 students have an outstanding balance ranging from less than $1 to $500, according to the district. The total lunch debt owed to the district was about $77,000.

After the controversial cold sandwich policy was announced, about $14,000 of that debt was collected, Bachus said. But the total money owed to the district is a "moving target" as more charges were made this week, she said.

Public schools in Rhode Island are mandated by state law to provide lunches to students, and 34 percent of Warwick students are on a free or reduced lunch program, according to the district. But those students can still accrue debt by choosing to add à la carte items to their free or reduced lunches.

About a third of the lunch money balances owed to the district are from families enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, according to the district.

Parents are sent four letters if their children owe lunch money, Bachus said. After the second letter is sent, students whose accounts are not "in good standing" lose the option of charging à la carte food, but students who don't get free lunch can still charge lunches to their accounts.

"We are very flexible with our payment plan. Once a student is on a payment plan, their account is considered in good standing," Bachus said.

The lunch debt 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 2016-17 school year, according to the nonprofit School Nutrition Association.

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

Warwick Public Schools initially refused a $4,000 donation from a local restaurant owner, later saying they were working with attorneys to "ensure that we accept donations in compliance with the law and that the donations are applied in an equitable manner."

The restaurant owner, Angelica Penta, kept raising money though, and said that after the district's situation received national attention, she got an outpouring of support and offers to help, including from Alec Baldwin and the cast of "The Talk."

Greek yogurt brand Chobani announced Thursday that it would "pay off the unpaid school lunch debt for the low-income students attending" Warwick Public Schools.

Chobani coordinated with the Warwick mayor's office to donate $47,650 to the district, a company spokesman and a spokeswoman from the mayor's office both said.

"For every child, access to naturally nutritious and delicious food should be a right, not a privilege," said Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya in a statement.

"The last thing that kids should worry about today is if there’s a warm lunch for them at school — and the shame they might feel if their classmates realize they can’t afford a school lunch," the statement said.