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Chobani to pay school lunch debts of low-income families in Rhode Island district

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The yogurt company Chobani plans to pay the school lunch debts of low-income families with students attending a district that made headlines by announcing children who owe money would get cold sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches instead of a hot meal, the mayor’s office confirmed Friday.

The office of Warwick Mayor Joseph Solomon said it’s coordinating with Chobani to accept nearly $50,000, the amount owed by low-income families with children in Warwick Public Schools.

Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya tweeted Thursday that as a parent, the news broke his heart. Access to nutritious food should be a right, not a privilege, he said.

Chobani was but one of the businesses and organizations that offered to donate money to the district, officials said.

Warwick Public Schools had said it was owed $77,000 and couldn’t assume more debt, sparking a public backlash and upsetting the mayor, who asked the school committee to reconsider. It later reversed the decision .

The district includes 19 schools. About 1,650 students owed money as of last Friday, and about 70% of those students are not enrolled in the program for free or reduced price lunches, according to the school committee.

The mayor’s office is trying to plan an event to accept the donation formally, spokeswoman Courtney Marciano said, and there has been an outpouring of support from across the country.

School leaders are working with attorneys on a way to accept donations to help settle lunch debt, after a local restaurant owner said the district twice turned down his offer to donate $4,000, school board Chairwoman Karen Bachus said.

Leaders are trying to find a balance between being fiscally responsible and ensuring all students get a healthy, nutritious lunch, she said.

Chobani, based in Norwich, New York, said the company is also looking to donate yogurt to the schools, a spokesman said.

Solomon and state Rep. Joseph Shekarchi, majority leader of the Rhode Island House, said they want to work with Chobani to bring attention to food insecurity among students nationally.

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