The suburbs aren’t the only place lunch shaming happens in Rhode Island. Some urban school districts have also experimented with the so-called cheese sandwich policy – when public school cafeterias serve students a cold cheese sandwich in lieu of a hot lunch because their parents are delinquent on the bill.
Pawtucket: cheese or sunbutter sandwich
“Heartbreaking as it sounds, we have a similar policy,” said Pawtucket School District Superintendent Patti DiCenso. “It’s not a new issue in Pawtucket.”
Pawtucket serves about 50 cheese or sunbutter (fake peanut butter) sandwiches daily as alternatives to hot lunches, said PSD Finance Director Melissa Devine. The cost difference is about $.27 cents a lunch. “Students can be getting an alternate lunch for a period of time if balance is not paid,” she said.
The Pawtucket policy was implemented in 2015 and it’s been controversial ever since, according to DiCenso, who said she struggles with it. She recently made an exception to the policy at elementary schools on Fridays for pizza. “I heard this little girl was crying because she couldn’t have pizza,” she said. “It’s very difficult to say to a kid on Friday that they can’t have pizza.”
“But,” she added, “the problem isn’t going away.”
Last year, with the policy in place, Pawtucket didn’t get paid for $21,100 in school lunches last year. The year before it was $16,900. With that kind of money, DiCenso says, “I could replace all of the water coolers, or fix one of the bathrooms.”
Pawtucket students paid for approximately $521,883 in lunches last year. Overall, the school food program served more than 1.4 million meals, including breakfasts and dinners, and cost $4.7 million, $4.186 million of which is federally subsidized.
“I really wish I could have a policy like Portsmouth’s,” DiCenso said. Portsmouth policy stipulates all children will get the same lunch options regardless of their ability to pay. Read more about school lunch debt policies in the suburbs here.
A group of grassroots activists that organized at Resist Hate RI meetings is helping to raise money to pay off the debt, and call attention to lunch shaming in the process.
North Providence: abandoned cheese sandwich policy
North Providence School District experimented with what it called “the cheese sandwich policy” for about a year. In March of last year an Aramark employee, in an email to school officials, explained how it was to work:
“We decided to handle it on a case by case basis,” she said. “We want to do the right thing by the kids first, so we are taking a more personal approach and a more case-by-case approach.”
Just three weeks ago, Smith gave school principals a discretionary school lunch accounts that they can use to buy lunches for students who owe lunch money.
North Providence doesn’t currently have a formal policy in place. The School Committee, she said, will be working on that in the coming months. Smith said, “I like the Portsmouth idea.”
Providence, Central Falls: all students treated equally
Providence and Central Falls both serve all students the same lunch options.
“In all our schools, our practice has been to provide lunch to all children, regardless of whether their accounts are in arrears at that moment, and then to work to recoup the costs from families at a later date,” said Laura Hart, a spokeswoman for Providence schools.
In Central Falls, every school lunch is free so they don’t have to worry about delinquent bills.
The Community Eligibility Provision of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, allows schools or districts with more than where more than 40 percent of the population is eligible for federally-subsidized free lunches to make all school meals free to all students.
Central Falls is the only entire school district in Rhode Island to take advantage of the CEP. In Providence, 12 of 22 elementary schools are CEP schools. All of the districts mentioned in this post are eligible for the CEP. DiCenso said Pawtucket hasn’t applied for the CEP because it could affect both state and federal funding. The state funding formula allots funding based in part of the number of free and reduced lunches a school serves. Central Falls collects data on child poverty through a separate community survey.