Chobani pays off lunch money debt after RI school district's controversial policy of handing out cold sandwiches

PHOTO: A school lunch tray in Oxon Hill, Md., Oct. 26, 2018.PlayThe Washington Post/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH News headlines today: May 8, 2019

Yogurt company Chobani has stepped up to pay off the lunch debt of students in a Rhode Island school district that generated controversy by giving out cold sandwiches rather than a hot meal.

The school district had earlier reversed the decision to serve students who owe lunch money cold sandwiches even before the debt was settled.

Warwick Public Schools announced on Facebook over the weekend that if money is owed on a paid, free or reduced lunch account, the student will be given a "sun butter and jelly sandwich" every day until the balance is paid in full or a payment plan is set up through the food service office. The Facebook post received hundreds of comments from angry parents criticizing the new policy.

Currently, the school district has an outstanding lunch debt of $77,000, which Chobani has offered to pay off.

"No child should be facing anything like this," Chobani CEO and founder Hamdi Ulukaya said in a message posted on Twitter. "I know it breaks out heart, it breaks many people's hearts, and we need to step up. We'll take care of this school's bill because everybody at Chobani was heartbroken, and they're going to do something about it. But this is just a small move. We need everywhere, everywhere around the country, to eliminate this for all -- forever."

The school district walked back the decision after reviewing it at a committee meeting on Wednesday, school officials announced in a statement.

Debt balances for students range from $1 to $500, according to the district. On Monday and Tuesday alone, $14,000 was collected from outstanding balances.

PHOTO: A food services worker hands a sandwich to a student while serving lunch at a school in Buxton, Maine, July 12, 2018. Portland Press Herald via Getty Images, FILE
A food services worker hands a sandwich to a student while serving lunch at a school in Buxton, Maine, July 12, 2018.

In the past, students were served hot lunches, even if the had an outstanding balance, The Associated Press reported.

The district participates in the National School Lunch Program, a federally-assisted meal program that provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to student every day. Each child who participates is provided with a "balanced meal" at reduced or no cost, according to the school district. A total of 34% of students in the district are enrolled in the program.

In addition to the national program, the school district also offers a "a variety of school lunch choices," including a la carte options such as pizza, fries, ice cream and snacks, which students may buy using funds from their school lunch accounts. Regular meal prices for students not enrolled in the national program range from $1.85 for breakfast and $3 for lunch, according the school district's website.

If a student does not have funds in their account, they are permitted to charge those items to the account, and the parent or guardian is then sent two notices informing them of the debt owed. The initial policy change would have mandated that If the debt is not cleared, a student could no longer purchase a la carte items and would be given a sun butter and jelly sandwich, vegetables, fruit and milk according to the district. Those are also included on the school lunch menu daily.

The district will now continue to allow students their choice of lunch regardless of their account status.

The majority of the balances -- 72% -- are from students who are not enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, according to the district.

The school district also outlined the steps taken to notify parents about the outstanding balances.

"With this Policy we seek to find a balance between being fiscally responsible and ensuring that all our students are provided with a healthy, nutritious lunch," a statement from the school read. "With respect to donations, we are grateful for any financial support that has been offered. We are working with our attorneys to ensure that we accept donations in compliance with the law and that the donations are applied in an equitable manner."

PHOTO: A school lunch tray in Oxon Hill, Md., Oct. 26, 2018. The Washington Post/Getty Images, FILE
A school lunch tray in Oxon Hill, Md., Oct. 26, 2018.

A local restaurant owner who twice offered to donate $4,000 to help pay down the debt was turned down both times, the AP reported. School officials said in a statement that all students must be treated equally, recommending that the donor take applications to decide who to donate the money to instead, according to the AP.

Pending state legislation would make free hot lunches available for all students, regardless of income, the AP reported.