A suburban New Jersey school system has wrestled for months with a problem common in other districts: an accumulating pile of student lunch debt.
The policy in Cherry Hill already limited students who owed more than $20 to a tuna sandwich meal.
Over the summer, the school board considered amending that policy and denying lunch to students who were more than $20 in debt, provoking a fierce backlash.
One student who spoke at a board meeting called the tuna sandwich “a badge of shame.” A supermarket owner volunteered to erase the overdue lunch debt altogether, but the district said that was not a viable long-term answer to a persistent problem.
Now Cherry Hill has approved a plan that has unleashed an even more vehement response and tapped a vein of nationwide outrage over so-called lunch shaming.
Tuna sandwiches are no longer the only option for children with overdue payments. But the policy now includes another penalty: It allows principals to block students who owe more than $75 from buying yearbooks or prom tickets, and from participating in nonacademic field trips and some extracurricular activities.
The school district’s latest move has drawn the scorn of a leading Democratic candidate for president.
“This is cruel and punitive,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter about the controversy.
“Excluding them and punishing them — what are you teaching them?” asked Sunny Reed, 35, whose son attends kindergarten in Cherry Hill. “It’s beyond ridiculous. It’s punishing children for being poor.”
Holding children publicly accountable for unpaid lunch bills is hardly unusual. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly half of all school districts used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay bills.
New York City, home to the country’s largest school district, started providing free lunch to all students two years ago, after officials and nutrition advocates found that some children chose to go hungry rather than admit they could not afford to pay.
In the week after Warren’s Twitter post, administrators fielded about 20 angry calls a day from people as far away as Texas, Colorado and California, a school official said.
The district’s superintendent, Dr. Joseph Meloche, issued a statement saying administrators and board members have felt “vilified” by media coverage that has “shined a harsh — and false — light on our community.”
Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, said the debate in Cherry Hill had “tapped into an emotional nerve — and of course it would. Debt shaming is a symptom of a bigger problem.”
Eleven million children in the United States sometimes go hungry, he said, including 270,000 in New Jersey.
“This is a national problem,” Rodriguez said. “It’s saddling local communities with issues that should be national imperatives.”
That’s where Warren waded in, holding up Cherry Hill’s policy as an example of the need to provide all students with free school meals, one of her campaign pledges.
Her Twitter post drew a range of responses. “This is not what a 1st world country looks like. How savage,” one person wrote.
Another challenged Warren from the right, writing that they had filled up their car’s gas tank that day and “no Democrat offered to pay for it.”
Sitting about 10 miles west of Philadelphia, Cherry Hill is New Jersey’s 11th-largest school district, with 11,350 students and 19 schools. It enjoys a reputation for high-performing schools and has a median household income of $97,069, according to U.S. census data from 2017.
But the district, officials and parents say, is fast evolving.
About 20% of its students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, nearly double the percentage who were eligible 10 years ago, according to state data provided by the district. The district’s student body is 58% white, 18% Asian, 12% Hispanic and 8% African-American. There are 72 languages spoken at home.
“Just because you live in Cherry Hill doesn’t mean you have money,” said Maria Hernandez, 50, whose grandson is in kindergarten and receives food assistance at Clara Barton Elementary School. “A lot of parents are sacrificing a lot of things and paying a lot of taxes to be in this school system.”
She added, “People in jail get three meals a day for free. I think it’s wrong not having that for the kids.”
Last year, in an effort to prevent shaming, the Agriculture Department issued guidelines that encouraged districts to “focus on the adult(s) responsible for providing funds for meal purchases, rather than focusing debt collection efforts on the child.”
Cherry Hill’s debate erupted not long after a similar dust up in suburban Pennsylvania. In July, a regional school district about 30 miles southwest of Scranton, Pennsylvania, sent letters home warning parents that if they did not repay overdue lunch bills, they could lose their children to foster care, according to The Associated Press.
The district initially refused an offer from the owner of a Philadelphia coffee company to repay the $22,000 debt, but later agreed.
Publicity about Cherry Hill’s lunch deficit similarly led to an offer of help on social media by Steve Ravitz, whose family operates a chain of supermarkets in southern New Jersey.
Barbara Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Cherry Hill School District, said Ravitz did not return a call from the superintendent about the offer he made on Facebook to erase the debt. The debt owed for the lunches — which sell for $3.10 in middle and high school and $3 in elementary school — has since climbed to about $16,500. Of this, $5,625.81 is owed by 34 students with lunch debts of $75 or more.
Ravitz did not return calls for comment.
Under Cherry Hill’s new policy, schools are required to contact guardians in writing and by phone, and to hold a face-to-face meeting before any penalty can be imposed.
“It is our greatest hope that, with the increased outreach to all families in arrears,” Wilson said, “we would never reach the point of revoking privileges to any student.”
Some said they saw positive goals behind the policy: identifying families in need and encouraging them to apply for free or reduced lunches, while making sure those with means do not exploit the system.
“Simply erasing the debt does not help those who need support and compassion and meals through the free and reduced meal programs,” Meloche said in a statement. “Simply erasing the debt does not address the many families with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed.”
Missy Lang, president of the parent teacher association at Cherry Hill High School West, one of the district’s two comprehensive high schools, said she was confident the policy would be applied sparingly, if ever.
“I don’t think it’s malicious, and I don’t think that they’re trying to shame them,” Lang said. “We are a great community, and we take care of our people.”
All states or “school food authorities” are required by the Agriculture Department to have laws governing how to handle unpaid lunch charges. Some states, including New Mexico and California, have adopted laws that aim to ban lunch shaming.
New Jersey’s statute, last revised in 2015, takes a completely different tack: It requires districts to stop feeding children with overdue lunch payments after two warnings over three weeks.
“School breakfast or school lunch, as applicable, shall not be served to the student,” the statute reads, “unless payment is made in full.”
Cherry Hill’s summertime debate about the no-food option grew in part from a desire to align with state law. Meloche sent a letter to Gov. Philip D. Murphy in August asking that he “insist on legislation that removes this language,” Wilson said. A spokeswoman for Murphy, a Democrat, said he was prepared to work with the Legislature to adopt a law that protects students from “needless shaming or punishment for school lunch debt.”
Jayden Johnson, 15, a sophomore at Cherry Hill West, said he had received free lunch since kindergarten and had never felt shamed. But he said the new move to punish students for overdue bills was wrong.
“How do you penalize someone for not being able to pay for lunch?” he said last week outside his school.
Susan Shin Angulo, a Camden County freeholder who is running for mayor of Cherry Hill, said the superintendent and the board should reconsider the “flawed” policy.
“Any option that denies students access and opportunity in the Cherry Hill public school system is unacceptable and undermines the foundation of what makes this township a special place live,” Shin Angulo said in a statement.
For the moment, there are no plans to revamp the policy, officials said.
Jesus Cuebas, 37, the father of a first-grader and a third-grader in Cherry Hill elementary schools, grew up in Puerto Rico. “Despite everything going on there, we always had field trips and our lunches were free,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s right,” he said of the new policy. “I think it’s sad.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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