EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s public schools have more than $300,000 worth of debt due to unpaid lunch bills.

In March and April, Eyewitness News reached out to every school district in the state to ask for their current lunch debt. While some districts did not respond to inquiries, 22 districts including Providence, Warwick and Cranston provided their current balance, which combined exceeds $346,000.

Last year, schools said they ended the year with more than $325,000 worth of debt.

Many districts absorb that debt, writing it off or paying it off from their general funds. Others attempt to collect the debt from students over the summer, holding the unpaid balance over through the start of the next school year.

“This is an issue, a serious issue,” said Rep. Robert Lancia, a Cranston Republican who recently introduced a bill to eliminate “lunch shaming,” a practice where a student is publicly confronted when his or her balance slips into the red. Lancia’s bill was heard in committee on Wednesday night; it was held for further study. 

On April 2, West Warwick’s superintendent sent a letter to parents saying the district was changing its school lunch policy following an outcry on social media regarding an incident where a student’s lunch was apparently tossed in the trash by staff. 

“Students who are buying lunch at school will be allowed to proceed through the lunch line and choose their meal,” Superintendent Karen Tarasevich wrote in the letter. “If there is an issue with their lunch account when they reach the cashier, the student will be allowed to pass through the lunch line with the lunch they have chosen.”

“The issue will not be addressed with the student in the lunch line,” Tarasevich added, explaining the unpaid bills would be brought to the attention of the student’s parent or guardian.

All of the school districts that responded to Eyewitness News said they never deny a student lunch regardless of how much debt has been accrued, instead offering a “sun butter” or cheese sandwich when payments lapse.

In Central Falls, students are offered free lunches through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program, where the federal government reimburses low-income school districts for meal costs based on overall district eligibility.

The same is true for Providence’s elementary school students, but on the secondary level, free and reduced lunch eligibility is determined on a student-by-student basis.

Policies vary by district, but for the most part, school departments use a multi-tier approach to collecting debt with letters and phone calls to parents. Warwick’s final notice to parents explains the debt will be turned over to the legal department for pursuit through small claims court.

“When income is not a factor and students do not come to school with either funds for lunch or a bag lunch, we need to stop and ask ‘Why?” Smithfield Superintendent Judith Paolucci wrote in an email to Eyewitness News.

“I’ve seen a variety of issues leading to negative balance,” she continued. “In one school in which I worked, we had some students who would throw away their healthy bagged lunch in favor of the school lunch of the day. For another student whose parents were trying to get them to eat more modest portions, the student would simply go to the lunch line to get a school lunch after they ate their bagged lunch. Parents, unaware that their children were opting for the school lunch, were surprised at the bill that came later.”

State Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence Democrat, has introduced a bill that would provide free lunches for all Rhode Island public school students. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing. 

“I think it’s a shame that we can afford to give tax credits to rich corporations without much debate, yet when it comes to feeding Rhode Island children we are contemplating the cost,” Ranglin-Vassell wrote in an email.

“Giving a child a cold cheese sandwich or taking his or her lunch and throwing it in the garbage is more than wrong, it’s devastating to our children,” she said. “It’s like having a ‘scarlet letter.’ No child should have to go through that kind of embarrassment because of their family’s inability to pay. And, simply put, there are so may families who are simply not able to afford the cost of lunch because of all the overheads.”

Lancia said he’s also working to start a nonprofit to help students and districts with the lunch debt problem.

“Our goal would be to expand the program for children statewide,” he said. “And you know, we talked about what the parameters would be. We’re very, very early in the process.”

Currently, there are 142,949 students enrolled in public schools statewide in Rhode Island. Providence is the state’s largest district, with more than 24,000 students.

Below are lunch debts provided by districts between March and April. (Districts that are not listed did not respond to our inquiries.)

  • Barrington: $11,506
  • Bristol-Warren: $907
  • Burrillville: $3,613
  • Central Falls: N/A
  • Chariho: $14,675
  • Coventry: $19,355
  • Cranston: $32,592
  • Cumberland: $32,359
  • Foster-Glocester: $862
  • East Greenwich: $15,933
  • East Providence: $25,478
  • Exeter-WG: $6,101
  • Jamestown: $276
  • Johnston: $1,746
  • Lincoln: $16,812
  • Narragansett: $4,905
  • North Kingstown: $1,900
  • Portsmouth: $4,700
  • Providence: $117,000
  • Smithfield: $1,536
  • South Kingstown: $17,962
  • Warwick: $27,569
  • West Warwick: $21,000
  • Woonsocket: $4,513