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Chobani CEO offers to pay off school lunch debts in Rhode Island

A school district in Rhode Island came under fire earlier this week after announcing students with school lunch debts would be served cold sunbutter and jelly sandwiches. A local restaurant owner whose child attends a Warwick Public School was outraged. She had offered to donate $4,000 to relieve students of their lunch debts – and the school denied her donation.

After receiving public scrutiny, the school has reversed the lunch debt policy, and another business owner has come forward with an offer to pay off students' debts.

Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya said he and everyone at the company was heartbroken by Warwick Public School's lunch money policy. Ulukaya tweeted that "every child should have access to natural, nutritious & delicious food, so @Chobani is doing our small part to help pay this debt."

Ulukaya's Greek yogurt company, which is headquartered in New Berlin, New York, stands by hiring refugees to help underprivileged people in the area. "Business must do its part.. our responsibility as members of community. who will join us?" the CEO tweeted.

The offer to pay off the lunch debts came about a day after the district announced on Facebook it would overturn its policy.

The Warwick School Committee Policy Subcommittee "reviewed [their policy] thoughtfully with the best interest of our students in mind," the Facebook post read. "That said, there are several points that we would like to clarify." 

The district explained that it participates in the federally assisted National School Lunch Program that provides nutritional, affordable lunches to all children, and reduced-cost or no-cost lunches to those who qualify.

In addition to this program, Warwick's secondary schools offer a variety of lunch choices, which are purchased using funds from students' school lunch accounts. "If a student does not have funds in their school lunch account to purchase à la carte items, they are permitted to charge those items to their account," the post explained. 

"A student's parent/guardian is then sent two notices informing them of the debt owed to the School Department for those à la carte items. It is only at this point, if the debt is not cleared, that a student can no longer purchase à la carte items," the post read.

About 1,653 students had a balance on their school lunch account as of last week, the district wrote in the post. Debts ranged from $1 to $500. Earlier this week, $14,000 was collected from outstanding balances, but more debt has been incurred. 

It is unclear if those debts were paid off by donations or parents themselves. Restaurant owner Angelica Penta said her donation offer was "shut down" by the district. However, she encouraged parents in need to reach out to her so she could individually pay off their debts.

A representative for Chobani told CBS News the mayor's office has accepted the company's donation.


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