Westerly school district dumping ‘cheese sandwich’ cafeteria policy

WESTERLY, R.I. (WPRI) — Blake Harrison made it his mission to erase what he and some others have termed “lunch shaming” in his cafeteria.

The soon-to-be 11th grader at Westerly High School would see students who’d selected a hot meal for lunch instead get served a cold cheese sandwich, milk, and a side – like a fruit or a vegetable — because they or their family hadn’t paid up on an outstanding cafeteria bill or account.

The ‘gap’ meal technically meets USDA standards for what students must be served in public schools. But Harrison and other students say the practice has been a source of embarrassment.

“It’s not only upsetting to the person, but it makes them seem ‘lesser’ to other people, by giving them something that is perceived as lower quality,” Harrison said Tuesday. “People are worried, like, if I walk into this lunch line, am I going to get a cheese sandwich? Is my balance low today? Are people going to make fun of me? People are scared.”

He started an online petition last April and gathered more than 350 signatures to stop the practice — which has been the policy in hundreds of other school districts across the country and has been met with equal consternation.

The Westerly School Committee warmed to the idea of stopping the practice. “The first thing we wanted to do was take the kid out of the equation,” said Christine Piezzo, who chairs the school committee’s sub-committee on policy.

Instead, going forward, a student who wants a hot meal will get one. “The student will not know” their payment balance, “and the business will be one between adults,” said Piezzo.

The school committee reviewed the policy earlier this month; they’ll hold a second reading of the new policy on August 23, and once it’s finalized it will be sent out to parents. The intent is to have the new policy in effect by the first day of school this fall.