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

The Cherry Hill school board adopted changes to its unpaid meals policy. Students with overdue accounts will still get a meal, but will be barred from attending prom, school dances and class trips.

The Cherry Hill School Board is considering changes in its unpaid meals policy that would bar students with overdue lunch fees from attending the prom, senior class trip, and school dances until payment is made. Critics call it "Prom Shaming."
The Cherry Hill School Board is considering changes in its unpaid meals policy that would bar students with overdue lunch fees from attending the prom, senior class trip, and school dances until payment is made. Critics call it "Prom Shaming."Read moreDreamstime / MCT

The Cherry Hill School Board approved a controversial new lunch policy Tuesday allowing students with overdue accounts to get a hot meal, but bars them from attending the prom or participating in extracurricular activities.

After a second reading and public hearing, the board voted 9-0 with no comment to adopt the revised policy during a sparsely attended meeting. The changes were introduced in September.

“Sometimes the right thing to do is the hard thing to do,” Superintendent Joseph Meloche said prior to the vote. “The goal of what we do is responsibility with compassion.”

The board agreed to alter its unpaid meals policy after its practice of serving tuna sandwiches to students with delinquent accounts made national headlines in August.

Under the new changes students get to select a hot lunch from the meal-of-the-day menu when their debt reaches $10. When the debt reaches $25, parents must be contacted to discuss the outstanding balance and any financial needs.

If the meal debt reaches $75, a parent must attend a mandatory meeting with school officials. Until the bill is paid, students will be barred from attending the prom, senior class trip, and school dances.

Students also will not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities or purchase a yearbook. They will be allowed to participate in athletics. The restrictions vary based on grade level.

Cherry Hill East senior Jacob Graff, a student representative on the board, expressed concern that the policy would impact students applying for college who have few extracurricular activities.

”I think it is completely unfair that students can be penalized for their parents’ inability to pay or unwillingness to pay,” Graff said. “What this policy does is really to harm students in the aspects for their future.”

Viviana Cvetkovic, a retired Rutgers University librarian and mother of six, told the board that it had made ”an elitist assumption that parents aren’t paying the bill because they don’t want to."

”There are many reasons why parents can’t pay a bill,” Cvetkovic said.

Anti-hunger advocates and residents have dubbed the policy “Prom Shaming," publicly embarrassing students in an attempt to force parents to pay the bill.

"We’re disappointed that the school board is moving ahead with this proposal that will punish students,'' Adele LaTourette, director, Hunger Free New Jersey, said. “While we understand that unpaid meal fees are an issue for the school district, we believe that punishing children is simply bad policy.”

Like many districts across the region, Cherry Hill has been grappling with how to handle student meal accounts that fall into arrears. Many districts give students an alternate meal, such as a tuna sandwich, and eventually refuse to serve them at all — until the debt is paid

Board President Eric Goodwin has said he believes the proposed change “strikes a balance of compassion” while holding people accountable.

The issue became a fierce debate in August after Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars recommended the district begin following a provision in its long-standing unpaid meal policy that mandates that those who owe $10 get a tuna sandwich and those who owe $20 or more get no lunch until the debt is paid.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, the district had a $14,343 meal debt incurred by about 340 students, according to Shugars. She said parents were notified repeatedly but have not paid the fees.

Resident Rick Shorts told the board Tuesday night that the new policy will create more bureaucracy and turn the district into a collection agency. He urged the board to accept donations and work with parents to try to wipe out the debt.

“Are we giving to have pictures of the students to figure out which ones paid their lunch and which ones didn’t. It’s absurd,” Shorts said.

There were offers from the public to make donations to help wipe out the debt, but the district said it believes some parents have the ability to pay.

State Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden), who represents Cherry Hill, plans to introduce a bill that would bar districts from denying a meal to a student because of a delinquent meal account.

Cherry Hill, one of the largest districts in the area, enrolls about 11,000 students. 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.