WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — With Warwick’s school lunch debt making national headlines, advocates are hoping this will shed light on an issue impacting districts across the state.

Warwick Public Schools recently scrapped a modified policy they were using to curb the city’s student lunch debt, which as of Monday stood at $77,000. The number ballooned from less than $10,000 at the end of the 2017 school year; at the end of 2018 they closed the year with about $27,000 in debt. School officials say they carry the debt frm year to year until a student graduates or leaves the district. 

Warwick’s policy has been to provide students who have accrued a certain amount of unpaid lunches with a sunbutter and jelly sandwich or cheese sandwich until their balance is paid in full or a payment plan is set up. A new policy would have removed the cheese sandwich option. On Tuesday, they school committee announced students who are in debt would no longer be limited to a single lunch choice. 

Warwick schools also reversed course on the decision to not accept any donations to the department to alleviate some of the debt.

Angelica Penta, owner of Gel’s Kitchen in West Warwick, was the first to present Warwick schools with a donation. In March 2018, Penta started a money jar to help students who struggle to afford lunch. She hoped it would put an end to “lunch shaming,” which is defined as schools singling out students who can’t pay for their lunch.

More than a year later, she said she presented a $4,000 check to both West Warwick and Warwick to put towards school lunch debt. West Warwick Public Schools accepted the check from her and will apply it at the end of the year, but Warwick Public Schools would not accept her donation.

Warwick schools initially explained that, “it was not in the position to single out or identify specific students that should be selected for a reduction in their lunch debt while excluding others.”

But on Wednesday, the department changed their decision, saying they are working with their attorney’s to ensure all donations are accepted, “in compliance with the law and that the donations are applied in an equitable manner.”

GoFundMe page was also created to raise money to pay off Warwick’s school lunch debt. So far it has raised more than $49,000.

The story made headlines nationwide, sparking the hosts of “The Talk” on CBS to pledge approximately $40,000 between them and CBS corporate.

On Thursday, yogurt company Chobani announced it is making a donation to help pay off the unpaid lunch debt for low-income students in what they are calling a “nationwide issue.” The company is also partnering with Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon and Rep. Joseph Shekarchi to raise awareness of food insecurity among students nationwide.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant of RI Kids Count said she hopes the national spotlight being shined on Warwick will bring attention to the important issue of child nutrition.

“Children can’t learn when they’re hungry,” Burke-Bryant said.

Many districts in Rhode Island employ a similar policy to Warwick’s and serve a cold sandwich to students who have accumulated a certain amount of school lunch debt.

Burke Bryant is advocating for the approval of a community eligibility provision which would provide free and reduced lunches to all students and avoid singling out children based on their family’s finances.

The community eligibility provision, which is part of Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, would provide free meals for all students within districts that have a large percentage of low-income families.

“I think we have put the attention of the state, and nation really, on what we really need to do in the right way with our kids,” she said.

One local lawmaker is also looking into ways to eliminate student lunch debt statewide. Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell is once again sponsoring a bill that would provide all Rhode Island student with free lunches. 

“While I applaud the generosity of people both near and far in paying off the outstanding lunch debt in Warwick, this is a Band-Aid solution and it’s not sustainable,” Ranglin-Vassell said in a statement. “The state must do its job and come up with a long term plan to ensure that lunch shaming never occurs in our state again.”

According to an estimate by the state’s budget office, the free lunch proposal wouldn’t cost anything in the remainder of this fiscal year, but could cost up to $33.6 million in 2020 and as much as $34.4 million in 2021.

“When you think about the investment in meals compared to the investment overall in education, it’s a very small percentage,” Burke Bryant said.

Ranglin-Vassell’s bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello tells Eyewitness News he doesn’t have a position on it just yet, and a spokesperson from Raimondo’s office said she has not yet reviewed the proposal.