Cranston schools have a policy for when student’s lunch payment accounts go into debt.
After $12.50 at the elementary level and $16.25 at the secondary level, or five lunches, go unpaid for, the student will receive a sun butter sandwich (along with other USDA required drink/foods) rather than a hot meal until that balance is repaid. According to schools Operating Officer Ray Votto, this policy has been in place since before Aramark took over as the food service provider in 2015.
What is new this year at the elementary school level, he said, is that when students are in line for lunch they will input their account number before going through and collecting their lunch. This way, the lunch workers know to give the students the sun butter lunch if they have more than five meals worth of debt before getting to the end of the line. This helps them avoid something called ‘lunch shaming,’ Votto said.
This commonly used phrase is the focus of a legislative bill that Representative Bob Lancia of Cranston is drafting. The bill, he said, is motivated by an incident he heard about at a West Warwick school in which a child had gotten their lunch, went to the cashier to pay, but there wasn’t enough money in their account and the tray of lunch was thrown in the trash.
He said that this incident speaks to a broader issue around the state in which students are being “shamed” in front of their peers and are missing out on the proper school lunches that they need.
His bill, he continued, would make it so that a child can’t have a tray of food taken away from them after they’ve received it, won’t have to wear a band or stamp that would single them out, and can’t be asked to do chores because they weren’t able to pay.
Lancia said that a Cranston parent has since reached out to him telling him about the sun butter sandwich policy and he’d like to talk with Superintendent Jeannine Nota about it in the near future.
According to Votto, Cranston families owe $32,592 in unpaid meals as of the end of March. He said that number is “a little better” than where it’s been in years past.
Votto said that the money is “written off” at the end of the school year by the school department, while School Committee Chairwoman Ruggieri added that the money comes out of their general budget, rather than the operating budget, so it’s a financial issue they have to deal with each year.
Votto said the families can “start clean” the following year without any balance on their accounts.
To alert parents about unpaid balances, Votto said, the schools have the ability to email parents directly as long as they are signed up for a MySchoolBucks account online. They also mail a past due bill at the end of each month to the homes of parents/guardians who have debts on their accounts. He said that according to USDA regulations, the schools can’t address a child specifically and if they provide a pass-due notice to one student, they’d have to give that same notice to all students.
Both Votto and Ruggieri said that a possible way to improve this issue is through more parents applying for reduced and free lunches, which Votto said is an underutilized service. He said at the beginning of the school year a letter is sent to each family with an application, but families can also apply throughout the year on Cranston school’s website. Aramark, the food service company for schools, can also be contacted to find out more about the free and reduced lunch program.
Ruggieri said that the sun butter policy is unlikely to change before next year, but all policies are constantly researched and changes to everything, including how to deal with the unpaid debts and possibly food options as well, could happen before next year.
Rep. Lancia said that the issue might be solved through funding from local organizations such as Feinstein or the Rhode Island Foundation that could provide funds in a “philanthropic” way. He said that he wouldn’t want to put an “additional burden on the school departments or tax payers.” In West Warwick, he said, a local restaurant, Gel’s Kitchen, is raising funds for affected families so their children can afford lunch.
Since getting the word out about this bill, Lancia has heard back from David Machioni, a district director for Stop & Shop who serves on the board for the Rhode Island Food Bank, who said he wants to get involved with this.
“I’m excited about this whole initiative because people are starting to reach back to me,” Lancia said. “It makes sense for everybody, because you don’t want to set the child up for shaming. We’re just at the cusp of the beginning of all of this.”