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

New Jersey school districts are grappling with how to handle unpaid lunch fees. Cherry Hill school officials will discuss the issue on Tuesday after a proposal to stop serving students when their lunch debt hits $20 caused an uproar.

In a file photo, students line up for lunch at a middle school in Sandy, Utah.
In a file photo, students line up for lunch at a middle school in Sandy, Utah.Read moreLaura Seitz / AP

New Jersey public school districts are trying to force parents whose children have overdue lunch fees to pay up or else.

At first, their kids may not get a meal. Later on, parents may face a possible state probe for child abuse.

Across the region, policies by districts vary, from giving students an alternate meal such as a tuna sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, or slices of cheese on bread, to eventually refusing to serve students anything — until the debt is paid. The issue emerged recently in Cherry Hill, raising questions about other districts’ policies as well.

In Gloucester County, the Washington Township School District, one of the largest in the region with 7,400 students, is also among the systems that has adopted an even tougher policy. Parents can be reported to the state Department of Children and Families, which investigates allegations of possible neglect or abuse.

Jan Giel, a district spokesperson, said the district has not reported any parents to the state for not paying a lunch debt. Other districts in the tri-county area that have similar provisions include Evesham, Lenape Regional, Glassboro, Gloucester Township, Harrison Township, and Pennsauken.

State Department of Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer said threatening families who cannot pay for a student’s lunch bill “is a misuse and misrepresentation of the state agency charged with investigating.”

“Living in poverty, owing money to the school or missing school-associated payments are not actions that in and of themselves qualify as child abuse or neglect,” the commissioner said in a statement Friday. It was unclear whether the department would work to change the practice.

Statistics were not available on how often the state agency is contacted by a school district because a family owes meal money. In 2020, a state law will require districts to report to the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees school lunch programs, how many student meal accounts are delinquent, and whether meals were denied or other action was taken.

Frank Sinatra, a spokesperson for Pennsauken schools, said the district has used private donations to pay outstanding lunch balances and in “extreme cases child services would be contacted as this constitutes child neglect.”

“At no time do we embarrass a child or remove his or her lunch while in line,” Sinatra said in a statement. “We prefer to try and assist in the situation.”

Critics, however, call it lunch shaming and believe that the polices punish students whose parents may be unable to pay and are ineligible for reduced price or free breakfast or lunch available under programs subsidized through federal programs.

“It’s marking kids as different. It adds to the shame,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, an anti-hunger advocacy group. “It’s pointing a figure at the fact that they’re eating a I have attached our charge policy."

A state legislator agrees, and plans to introduce a measure in the Legislature this fall that would prohibit districts from refusing to serve students with overdue meal accounts. LaTourette wants the state to also ban districts from referring the cases to Children and Family Services.

“It’s flat-out wrong,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, (D., Camden), who is drafting a food-shaming bill. “We are not a third world country. Nobody should go hungry.”

Nationwide, lunch debt has become a growing problem, and districts said they are required to collect for unpaid meals under federal rules changes in 2017. So, school officials have been reaching out to parents and asking them to pay up, or providing alternate meals to their children. The family must be notified before a student can be denied a meal, New Jersey regulations say.

The Lumberton school district offers students with unpaid meal accounts a choice of a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich, said Mark Leung, the school business administrator. The district serves about 200 breakfasts and 600 lunches daily. Some 236 students in the district are eligible for free meals and 41 for reduced meals.

“Students are not turned away after a certain amount,” Leung said in a statement.

The Cherry Hill school district made headlines two weeks ago when a proposal was presented to enforce its stricter policy for students with overdue lunch bills. After the first $10 in debt, students get a tuna sandwich. After $20, they would get no breakfast or lunch until the debt is paid.

Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars cited a $14,343 meal debt racked up by about 343 students in the 11,000-student district. Parents have ignored repeated notices to pay the fees, she said.

The proposal touched off a social-media firestorm among community leaders and residents.There were offers to pay off the balance, but the district declined. Council President David Fleisher vowed to block the district from enforcing the stricter policy.

A packed room is expected when the school board discusses the proposal at a meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Carusi Middle School. No action can be taken until two public hearings, but residents will have a chance to voice their opinions.

“There has to be a compromise,” said resident Rick Short. “It’s not right.”

Superintendent Joseph Meloche said the proposal has brought negative attention to Cherry Hill, but he praised the board for having a “courageous conversation” about a national debate. Since the proposal was announced, some parents have paid their balances, he said.

Meloche said Cherry Hill has turned down donations to cover meals because officials want eligible families who cannot afford to pay to apply for free or reduced meals. About 20 percent of the district’s children would qualify.

But LaTourette, the child anti-hunger advocate, said families, such as undocumented immigrants fearing deportation, may have a reason for not applying. Meloche said he doesn’t believe that is the primary reason in Cherry Hill but acknowledged it could happen elsewhere in the region.

According to Meloche, the district last year served each day about 60 alternate tuna sandwich meals, which include a fruit and vegetables, because a student’s family owed meal money. He said he hopes lawmakers change the meal regulations to give districts more flexibility.

“There are food insecure families in town, that’s real,” Meloche said. But he believes that some families with delinquent accounts “absolutely have the financial means” to pay what is owed.

Gloucester Township schools also gives tuna sandwiches to its elementary students as an alternate when their meal debt reaches $20, according to its lunch menu policy. After $50, no meals are provided.

Last month, a Northeastern Pennsylvania school district sparked a national controversy after it threatened to place in foster care children whose parents had not paid their school-lunch bills.

After a public outcry, the Wyoming Valley West District reversed its decision and said it would accept the donation of a Philadelphia businessman to clear the $22,467 lunch debt.