Yogurt Maker Chobani Pays Off Nearly $50,000 of School Lunch Debt for Poor Students

A school district in Warwick, Rhode Island earned no shortage of infamy last week. The school announced that it would begin punishing students with unpaid balances on their lunch accounts by giving them sunflower seed and jelly sandwiches until they paid the school, drawing accusations of “lunch shaming” and claims that the school was setting up poorer children for bullying.

However, yogurt company Chobani has now stepped in to pay off much of the roughly $77,000 debt allegedly owed to Warwick Public Schools.

The founder and CEO of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, issued a statement explaining why his company intervened to defuse the raging controversy:

“As a parent, this news breaks my heart. 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.”

In addition to donating $47,650 to the school, the New York-based company will also donate yogurt to Warwick’s schools.

After the cold sandwich policy was announced, around $14,000 was collected from families with outstanding lunch balances, with the remainder paid by multiple GoFundMe fundraising pages, according to Providence Journal.

The move is likely to spare the school a considerable amount of animus from working families across the country, who often struggle to make ends meet and rely on free or reduced lunch programs to feed their kids.

The “sun butter and jelly” sandwich rule was set to impact about 9,000 kids in the school district ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors, and was deliberately designed to skirt the law requiring all schools to feed their kids while not specifying what the children should be fed.

Around 70 percent of Warwick school district students qualify for the lunch program, but even kids who can get free lunches can rack up charges on their account by picking up extra items such as milk.

Parents were infuriated by the decision, and word quickly spread across social media and U.S. media outlets.

One parent wrote on the district’s Facebook page:

“Just give the kids lunch … We already lost a janitor, science teacher, don’t have air conditioning, we can’t spring for a chicken patty for a hungry kid? What if this is their only meal of the day?”

While the school is now “reviewing” the policy, its rule has ignited a national conversation about school lunch debt and “lunch shaming” across the country. While cash-strapped districts are facing mounting debt due to their free or reduced price lunch programs, many schools also throw away lunches that students can’t afford, prohibit access to hot lunches, stamp the hands of children whose parents have unpaid balances or require them to wear special badges, and even put children to work to cover the debt.

“We need to step up. We’ll take care of this school’s bill … but we need everyone around the country to eliminate this problem forever,” Chobani’s founder noted.