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Deptford schools crack down on unpaid lunch accounts after students reach $68,000 in arrears

Until a bill is paid, the new policy calls for meal restrictions based on grade level

Deptford schools are cracking down on unpaid lunch accounts.
Deptford schools are cracking down on unpaid lunch accounts.Read moreAP

The Deptford School district is cracking down on parents who rack up hundreds of dollars in students’ unpaid meal fees by adopting a new policy to serve peanut butter or cheese sandwiches to their children until bills are paid.

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The South Jersey district enacted the policy for the new school year after some parents accrued thousands of dollars in debt, said spokesman Salvatore Randazzo. Already this year, 783 student accounts are $68,000 in arrears from past years’ dues, he said. Deptford enrolls about 4,100 students.

“You never want to get that far behind that you can’t catch up on a bill,” Randazzo said Friday.

The district notified parents this week about the new policy, which triggered a social media firestorm: Critics said the policy publicly embarrasses students in an attempt to force their parents to pay their bill, while others said the district can’t endlessly foot their bills.

The district said it provides meals to students who forget to bring money for breakfast or lunch, with the expectation that payment would be made the next school day. Full price for lunch is $3.25 for elementary students, $3.50 for middle school and $3.75 for high school.

A single mother of three, Candice Elsesser said she struggled to pay off a balance of $400 for her two school-age children left over from the 2022-23 year. A human resources manager, she didn’t qualify for reduced or free meals.

“I don’t feel that it’s fair that you’re going to punish my children,” said Elsesser. “All of us parents are struggling in this economy right now.”

Randazzo said the unpaid meals policy has been in place for years but was loosely enforced. With the changes, a parent now will be contacted to make a payment when the debt reaches $50, discuss the outstanding balance, or share any financial concerns, Randazzo said.

Until the bill is paid, the policy calls for restrictions, based on grade level: Pre-K and kindergarten students will continue to get breakfast and a basic lunch — a peanut butter or cheese sandwich along with a fruit, vegetable and milk — while first through fifth graders will get the basic lunch but no longer get breakfast. Students in sixth through twelfth grade will not get breakfast or lunch.

Students’ accounts will be charged for any alternative meal, and the balance could be reported to a collection agency if it remains delinquent, Superintendent Kevin Kanauss wrote in the note to parents.

“Our district is committed to providing these meals for students daily,” Kanauss said. “However, the district has encumbered a huge financial burden from families failing to pay their meal balances for their scholars. Such financial losses impact our programs, staff, and supplies for students.”

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Elsesser and other parents weighed in on the Deptford Town Talk Facebook page. Several people offered to donate snacks and meals or pay unpaid accounts.

“Sometimes the only meal some children get is school lunch, it is not the child’s fault,” wrote Patricia Mitchell.

Wrote Danny Kamp: “It should be simple, if they don’t pay they don’t eat.”

Rebecca Vanhoof noted that the district is owed a lot of money. “They need to do something.”

Randazzo said the restrictions are “a very last resort. That’s not something we’re looking to do. No one is turning away a kid who needs to eat.”

All students with delinquent meal accounts can be barred from participating in extracurricular activities, field trips, dances, prom, and graduation, according to the policy. Report cards may also be withheld.

After receiving a second notice about an unpaid meal account, a parent must meet with school officials if the full payment is not made within a week, the policy says. The district said it may consult with the state Department of Children and Families, Division of Child Protection and Permanency, “as appropriate.”

» READ MORE: Cherry Hill School Board approves changes to lunch policy — tuna sandwiches are out and so is prom for students with unpaid meal fees

A similar practice adopted several years ago by the Cherry Hill school district of serving tuna sandwiches to students with delinquent accounts made national headlines. The district later revised the policy, allowing students with overdue accounts to get a hot meal.

Districts across the region have grappled with how to handle student meal accounts that fall into arrears. Many districts have given students alternative meals, but eventually refuse to serve them at all — until the debt is paid.

During the first two years of the pandemic, the federal government provided free breakfast and lunch to all schools. It declined to continue the program. Several states, including Pennsylvania, have enacted universal free breakfast or lunch programs. Students in Philadelphia schools have received free breakfast and lunch since 2014.