Tuna sandwiches may soon be off the menu for Cherry Hill public school district students whose parents rack up overdue meal fees.

Assistant School Superintendent Justin Smith on Tuesday unveiled proposed changes to the district’s controversial overdue-lunch-fees policy that gives tuna sandwiches to students who owe $10 and stops serving those with a $20 debt.

Assistant Cherry Hill School Superintendent Jason Smith answers questions about changes proposed for the district’s lunch policy.
Melanie Burney
Assistant Cherry Hill School Superintendent Jason Smith answers questions about changes proposed for the district’s lunch policy.

Instead, students would have the option to select a hot lunch from the meal of the day menu available to paying students. They would not, however, be allowed to select a la carte items, such as snacks.

”We [would] no longer have a substitute meal,” said Barbara Wilson, a district spokesperson. “We will always feed the children."

The threshold for notifying parents about their unpaid balance would change from the 10-day timeline, but the new time frame has not been determined, Wilson said. And parents would be required to attend a mandatory meeting with school officials.

Wilson said the proposed changes include a provision that would prohibit students with overdue meal fees from participating in activities such as graduation ceremonies, school parties, and prom. Students would be allowed to participate in field trips and educational activities, she said. Students would not be barred from athletics/extracurriculars if their lunch accounts are in arrears, she said.

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

Last month, the South Jersey district touched off a firestorm after Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars asked the board to tweak what has become known as “the tuna policy.” She recommended that the district begin following a provision in its long-standing unpaid meal policy that mandates those who owe $20 or more will 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 343 students, Shugars said. She said parents were notified repeatedly but have not paid the fees.

The recommendation was widely criticized as lunch shaming, publicly embarrassing students with an overdue account to force parents to pay the bill.

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

At a meeting last month, school board members suggested ways to change the policy: increasing the threshold to $25 when parents are notified and $60 when students are no longer served; eliminating the alternate meal; and accepting donations. Superintendent Joseph Meloche said then that district officials would discuss those recommendations.

Although Assistant Superintendent Smith discussed a draft of the revised policy Tuesday night with board members, the policy was not read or released to the public.

In this file photo, Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joseph Meloche speaks during a school board meeting.
In this file photo, Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joseph Meloche speaks during a school board meeting.

Wilson said a draft of the proposed policy will be made public on Sept. 20, followed by a first reading on Sept. 24. The board may take action on it after a second reading on Oct. 15, she said.

The district, one of the largest in the area, enrolls about 11,000 students. About 20% are eligible for reduced-price or free meals. About 6.2% of Cherry Hill’s 71,000 residents live in poverty, census figures show.

Diane Nilan, a national advocate for the homeless who travels around the country, believes that Cherry Hill may have a larger population of homeless children than the 50 identified by the district.

Nilan, president of HEAR US, a Naperville, Ill.-based nonprofit, said she visited Cherry Hill last weekend to meet with the district’s homeless liaison, Bonnie Mingin, to discuss the lunch policy and promote homeless awareness. She said it was “pretty evident that there was a gap.”

“Why make this so punitive?” Nilan said of the lunch policy. She has spent the last 13 years traveling the country documenting stories of the homeless.

Some have blasted the Cherry Hill policy, adopted in 2017 but not strictly enforced, as punishing children whose parents may be unable to pay. Similar charges have been made recently in other districts around the country where students have been denied meals.

Whole wheat tuna salad sandwich with a glass of milk.
Macko Flower / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Whole wheat tuna salad sandwich with a glass of milk.

After a public outcry, the Wyoming Valley West School district in Northeastern Pennsylvania district reversed its threat to try to place children whose parents had not paid their school-lunch bills in foster care. The district agreed to the donation of a Philadelphia businessman to clear the $22,467 lunch debt.

Elsewhere in New Jersey, some districts have adopted polices that require school officials to report lunch account delinquencies to the state to conduct a review for a possible investigation for child abuse.

In Cherry Hill, students with an outstanding balance of more than $10 get an “alternate” meal, under the current policy. That meal includes a tuna sandwich on wheat bread, milk or juice, carrots or cucumbers, and fruit. About 60 tuna sandwiches were served every day as an alternate meal last year, Meloche said.

If approved, the revised policy would conflict with a state law that requires districts to notify parents in arrears that breakfast or lunch should not be served to a student after a second notice has been sent to parents, Meloche said. The district has not enforced that policy to deny a meal to any student, he said.

In a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy, Meloche asked the governor to change the law. Wilson said the district is working with local legislators and hope that the law will be amended by the time the new policy is adopted.

”This onerous requirement is an unjust burden to place on local districts,” Meloche wrote to the governor.

Wilson said it was unclear how the district would handle the unpaid fees from the previous school year.

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 financial ability to pay. School officials said the district wants to help those with financial hardships apply for free or reduced lunch and other available resources.