After a Rhode Island school district’s policy for students who owe lunch money drew nationwide criticism, upstate New York-based yogurt company Chobani has stepped in to ensure all students are guaranteed a hot meal at lunch.
Chobani, headquartered in Norwich, has donated $47,650 toward the $77,000 lunch debt faced by Warwick Public Schools, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
On Sunday, the district had announced students who owed money on paid, free or reduced lunch accounts would be served sun butter and jelly sandwiches with the usual vegetables, fruit and milk until their balance was paid, beginning May 13.
That policy was altered a few days later, after parents left scores of angry comments on the district’s post and national media outlets picked up the story. Chairwoman Karen Bachus said a school subcommittee recommended students get the lunch of their choice, regardless of their account balance.
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“Chobani is pleased that the Warwick Public Schools district later opted to put this policy on hold,” the company said in a statement, “but still wanted to step up to the plate to pay this unpaid lunch debt and also raise awareness to the issue of children being denied a delicious, nutritious meal and often suffering the stigma of not being served the same meal as his or her peers.”
Multiple GoFundMe fundraising pages have also been launched, with balances around $40,000.
“As a parent, this news breaks my heart,” said Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani, in a statement. “For every child, access to naturally nutritious and delicious food should be a right, not a privilege. When our children are strong, our families are stronger. And when our families are strong, our communities are stronger. Business can and must do its part to solve the hunger crisis in America and do its part in the communities they call home.”
Chobani also pledged to donate cups and bottles of Chobani greek yogurt products to the surrounding Warwick community.
All public schools in Rhode Island are required by state law to provide lunches to students, and 69% of the lunches served are free or offered at a reduced price.
Bachus clarified that 72% of the district’s lunch debt is owed by students on paid plans, not free or reduced accounts, and that debt is incurred only when students select a la carte options such as pizza, fries, ice cream and other snacks.
Parents are notified twice of the debt before a student’s a la carte access is denied, she added. The district says 1,653 students have an outstanding debt.
The district added on Facebook that they are “grateful” for the financial support that has been offered and are working with attorneys to accept them in a lawful manner and distribute them equitably.
Chobani’s donation, the Warwick mayor’s office said Friday, will be applied to the debt of the district’s low-income students.
Follow Katie Sullivan Borrelli on Twitter @ByKatieBorrelli.