Aniece Germain, mother of a kindergarten and a second grade student in the Cranston public schools, didn’t know her children’s lunch accounts were in arrears until after they missed a meal because of it.
“When the boys came home from school they were so mad,” she said. Because their lunch accounts were delinquent, each by about $12.50, they were served sunbutter sandwiches instead of the otherwise hot lunch options.
“They didn’t eat it,” Germain said. “They don’t like sunbutter.”
Sunbutter, a peanut butter-esque spread made from sunflower oil, is the vegan alternative to the cold cheese sandwich some school districts serve to students with school lunch debt. It’s known as lunch shaming. While several districts recently abandoned it – including Pawtucket, North Providence, Portsmouth, East Greenwich, and South Kingstown – it remains common in Rhode Island public schools. Cranston adopted a policy in August that stipulates serving sunbutter sandwiches to elementary school students who owe more than $12.50, or for five lunches.
“If parents make a mistake, why make the kids pay for it,” Germain wondered. “Why make the kids have a miserable few hours or shame?”
One reason is because lunch shaming is an effective debt collection tool, according to Tricia Wright, general manager for Aramark in the Cranston school system.
“If you didn’t do something, the balance would be even higher,” she told members of the Cranston School Committee who attended a Wellness Subcommittee meeting Monday night to address the matter.
The sunbutter sandwich lunch costs the same as a hot lunch, Wright said, but students unhappy with it will likely let their parents know about it.
Wright said she saw Burrillville schools go from more than $10,000 of school lunch debt to under $3,000 thanks in part to lunch shaming, and added that she knows of schools that have eliminated lunch shaming to their fiscal detriment.
Cranston is owed more than $50,000 for school lunches – about $30,000 from last year before it had the sunbutter policy in place and already another $20,000 this year with the policy. There are about 2,100 students in Cranston who carry some lunch debt, “from 25 cents to more than $180,” Wright said.
A big part of the problem is many of the students who owe lunch money may qualify for free or reduced lunch, but getting every eligible student to sign up has proven as difficult as getting some to pay for their school lunch.
North Kingstown, the only school district in Rhode Island that doesn’t outsource its school lunch program, deals with lunch debt by first sending letters to parents, and eventually making phone calls. In Cranston, Wright said some schools are better at this than others. “There are certain schools that definitely call,” she said. “Other schools, we know that email just gets deleted.”
Cranston no longer sends letters to parents about lunch debt because of the difficulty in delivering them to parents of high school students. “Unfortunately because of new USDA guidelines if you’re going to send a letter home it has to go to every age,” Wright said.
In lieu of the school district sending the letter, Wright suggested the School Committee could allow Aramark hire a private company to send letters. “It’s not technically a collections agency,” she explained, saying she had only just learned of the company earlier in the day from an email. “It doesn’t go against their credit.” She added, “They have a collections agency they own.”
The company charges $11.75 to send five letters over 75 days. Wright thought it could prove valuable for anyone who owes more than $20, or for more than two week’s worth of lunches.
“What I do like about it is it goes directly to the parent,” said School Committee member Dan Wall. A parent and a teacher in Providence, Wall said his daughter mentioned the alternative lunch policy “makes you stand out. A better policy would go directly to parents,” he said.
School Committee member Jeff Gale said he would like to see the current policy changed. “We knew [the current policy] was not the right thing to do but we had to do something that day,” he said, noting that amending it “is taking too long. That’s why we are here.”