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New Jersey lawmakers considering bills to end 'lunch shaming’ and change unpaid fee policy for schools

New Jersey lawmakers are tackling a sticky issue that has cropped up around the country: how should public school districts handle mounting unpaid lunch fees. A series of bills introduced recently would ban so-called "lunch shaming" and force districts to accept donations to help wipe out the debt.

The New Jersey legislature is considering a package of bills that would change how public schools handle unpaid lunch fees, if approved.
The New Jersey legislature is considering a package of bills that would change how public schools handle unpaid lunch fees, if approved.Read moreEllen O'Nan / AP

New Jersey could become the latest state to ban “lunch shaming” under a package of bills that would force public schools to change how unpaid lunch fees are handled.

The bills, if approved, would mean districts would no longer be required, in certain circumstances, to stop serving meals to students with overdue accounts. They would also bar schools from serving alternate meals — such as cheese sandwiches — to students with unpaid lunch fees, and prohibit districts from reporting delinquent parents to collection or child protective agencies.

“My hope is that there is never any hesitation about feeding a child,” Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden), one of the sponsors, said Wednesday. “Food is part of the structure of educating children.”

New Jersey was thrust into the national controversy about unpaid lunch fees by the Cherry Hill School District’s actions in August. Several Democratic presidential candidates weighed in; Sen. Bernie Sanders called for a universal free lunch program.

After a public outcry, the school board revised its policy in October to allow students with at least $75 in unpaid fees to get a hot meal, but bars them from attending prom, class trips, and school dances or purchasing a yearbook. Under the old policy, those students were served a tuna sandwich until the bill was paid.

» 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

Cherry Hill Superintendent Joseph Meloche hailed the bills that would require districts to adopt new rules for lunch fees for the 2020-21 school year. He expressed concern about a provision that would require districts to set up a “School Meal Fund” to assist students in arrears. The district has refused to accept donations and said it prefers to work with parents to resolve any financial issues.

The district enrolls about 11,000 students and about 20% are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. About 6.2% of Cherry Hill’s 71,000 residents live in poverty, census figures show. Nearly $19,000 is owed in unpaid lunch fees, said spokesperson Barbara Wilson.

“I’m very pleased that the Legislature is having the discussion,” Meloche said. “I’m glad that they’re taking it on, and they want to do something about it.”

The bills cleared the Assembly Education Committee last month and now need approval by the full house. A similar package is pending in the Senate. Lampitt said a vote could come before the current term ends in January.

Rancocas Valley High School Superintendent Chris Heilig said the bills, if approved, would require minor changes at the Mount Holly school, which enrolls about 2,100 students. Those whose accounts are at least $30 in arrears are served a cheese sandwich, but can get another meal if they have an allergy or a dislike for it, he said.

Pennsylvania allows schools to give “alternative meals” to students who owe more than $50 and aren’t eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Some districts say it has become harder to collect mounting unpaid fees because of recent efforts to avoid “lunch shaming.”

» READ MORE: School ‘lunch-shaming’ has become a national issue; here’s how Pa. deals with unpaid bills

Nationwide, mounting lunch debt has become a growing problem, and districts said they are required to collect for unpaid meals under federal rules changed in 2017. In some districts, benefactors have wiped out the debt, including San Francisco 49er Richard Sherman, who paid $27,000 in unpaid lunch fees at schools in Washington and California.

In South Jersey, policies for delinquent lunch fees vary, from giving students alternate meals to eventually refusing to serve them until the debt is paid. In some districts, parents can be reported to the state Department of Children and Families, which investigates allegations of possible neglect or abuse.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has endorsed the bills, except the provision that would establish a special district fund to accept donations, saying it might discourage delinquent parents from paying.

» READ MORE: N.J. school-lunch policies: Parents must pay delinquent meal fees or face possible state probe for child abuse

Lumberton school Superintendent Joe Langowski said the bills were “a step in the right direction.” His Burlington County district incurred less than $900 in uncollected lunch fees from the previous school year. Glassboro Superintendent Mark Silverstein said the bills take “a balanced approach to meeting the needs of feeding New Jersey schoolchildren.”

Another bill pending in the Senate would require the state to appropriate $4.5 million to pay for reduced price meals.

“This is a great package," said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, an advocacy group. “This really tackles the lunch shaming piece.”