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Students left hungry after meal program halted in 2 districts

School Updates

WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Two of Rhode Island’s 41 school districts ended their summer meal programs at the end of August, leaving a hunger gap for dozens of children.

According to a Rhode Island Department of Education spokesman, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides a flat fee per meal that covers food and labor, indicating funding was apparently not an issue.

Superintendents in West Warwick and Burrillville said their programs were ended for different reasons tied to preparing for the first day of school.

Katie St. Jean, a West Warwick mother of four who did not use the summer version of the program, said she has depended on the meals at times during the school year.

“There wasn’t much notification,” St. Jean said. “I got it the night before it stopped.”

West Warwick provided its last USDA funded meals of the summer August 31. In an email, Superintendent Karen Tarasevich said the district’s kitchens needed extensive cleaning “for a healthy and safe start to the year.”

“Since our kitchens have been open and busy all summer, we need these two weeks prior to September 14th to clean, disinfect, and put CDC guidelines and protocols in place in our kitchens,” she explained.

In Burrillville, Superintendent Michael Sollitto said the district served about 80 meals a day, with the total dwindling in August.

“The decision was made to end the program August 24th in order for the district to start the preparation of the upcoming school year,” Sollitto wrote in an email. “As you know, planning for the upcoming school year has been difficult and we needed to develop plans with our food service provider.”

In West Warwick, the two-week gap prompted restaurateur Angelica Penta to recruit vendors and volunteers to prepare meals for hungry children.

Penta, who organized a fundraising effort last year to cover students’ unpaid lunch bills, said the districts’ logic does not make sense.

“Two weeks to clean a kitchen?” Penta asked. “It’s heartbreaking because I have a soft spot when it comes to kids and I want to make sure every child who needs a lunch is getting one.”

St. Jean is one of the volunteers bagging donated food with Penta for pick-up and delivery.

“I know what it’s like to struggle to feed my kids,” St. Jean said. “So, when you rely on that lunch and to not receive it anymore, it’s frustrating.”

West Warwick parents also said they were disappointed after their district refused to send out a mass email to tell parents about the private effort to fill the two-week gap before school starts.

Tarasevich said, “Our typical protocol is not to send out commercial notifications.”

Penta believes her average of serving just over 50 meals a day could go up with help from the district.

“There are maybe 70 kids out there who aren’t getting a meal and I’m sure there’s plenty more,” Penta said. “So many businesses showed us love and helped. We have enough food to serve more.”

Tarasevich and Sollitto said their districts’ food programs will resume when school starts on Monday.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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