As It Happens

Rhode Island students with lunch money debt given cold sandwiches instead of hot lunches

A Rhode Island school district will begin serving cold sandwiches instead of hot meals to students whose families owe lunch money. Local restaurant owner Angelica Penta tried to help pay off other students' unpaid lunch debt — but her offer was rejected.

Restaurant owner Angelica Penta offered $4,000 donation to help pay lunch debt, but was refused

Students line up for lunch at a middle school in Sandy, Utah, in this file photo. A Rhode Island school district will begin serving cold sandwiches instead of hot lunches to students whose families haven't paid their tab. (Laura Seitz/The Deseret News via AP)

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May 13, 2019 update: Following public backlash, Warwick's public school district reversed its decision to serve cold sandwiches instead of a hot lunch to students with a negative balance on their lunch accounts.

The district said it was owed $77,000 US and couldn't assume more debt. Following the announcement, yogurt company Chobani announced plans to donate $50,000 to help pay off students' outstanding accounts.

It's one of several businesses and organizations that offered to donate money to the district, Warwick officials told the Associated Press.

Original story:

Starting next Monday, middle school students in Rhode Island who owe money on their lunch accounts can expect their hot midday meal to be scrapped, and to be handed a cold sunflower butter and jelly sandwich until their debts are settled.

The Warwick Public Schools district is owed more than $77,000 US from outstanding lunch payments, according to the Warwick Post.

Angelica Penta, a local restaurant owner whose son attends one of the public schools in Warwick, R.I., tried to help pay off the outstanding balance on other students' tabs — but her offer was rejected.

"When they are taking your lunch away, throwing it in the trash, and then only giving you a cold sun butter sandwich … it tells other kids that you can't afford to buy your lunch basically," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Critics say such lunch debt policies condemn children for something that is outside of their control.

"To me it's a form of lunch shaming," said Penta.

"For all you know somebody could have just lost a parent or a husband or wife. Someone … could have been sick and been out of work for a while. They could have just lost their job. So you don't know someone's story. You don't know the reason why they're not paying the bill."

Students are still charged for the meal, Penta noted, further compounding their lunch debt.

$4K donation offer refused

Penta says she was driven to action after hearing the story of a young student brought to tears after her hot lunch was taken away from her and thrown into the garbage, when school staff discovered she didn't have any money in her lunch account.

Angelica Penta, left, owns a local restaurant chain in Warwick, R.I. She's been collecting money to donate to Warwick Public Schools so students with a negative lunch money account get a hot midday meal. (Angelica Penta/Facebook)
She resolved to raise money to help pay off student's outstanding accounts so they can have a full meal during the day.

"Right now we have two restaurants in Warwick and West Warwick, so we have jars" for donations, she explained.

West Warwick accepted her donation, she said. But the adjacent Warwick district refused her offer of $4,000, arguing that when teachers recently raised money for lunches, parents got upset.

"They called the school. They basically said, 'I can afford my kid's lunch. Don't pay my kid's lunch.' It was embarrassing to the parents," Penta said.

The district responded in a statement saying it must treat all students equally and cannot single out which debts to reduce, and recommended Penta instead take applications and decide who receives the money.

"I believe that every child should be able to get, you know, a hot meal and not have to worry about it," she said.

"I do know that you know there are a lot of people that are against that, and our taxes are high enough. Why do we have to pay for and stuff. But there are so many other things that our taxes are wasted on now. I'm sure we can cut somewhere."

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Angelica Penta produced by Ashley Mak.


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