Has the Cherry Hill school district gone from lunch shaming to prom shaming? Critics think so.
The South Jersey district touched off a furor last month with a controversial policy of serving alternate meals of tuna sandwiches to students with overdue meal fees. After a public outcry that made national headlines, the district said it would make changes.
Now, the district is considering changes that would bar students with overdue lunch fees from attending their prom, senior class trip, and school dances until payment is made. Students also would not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities or purchase a yearbook. They would be allowed to participate in athletics, according to Barbara Wilson, a district spokesperson.
A draft of the proposed changes was released last week and has already come under attack from anti-hunger advocates and residents.
“We believe that children should not be punished because their parents can’t pay or don’t pay,” Nancy Parello, a spokesperson for Hunger Free New Jersey, an antihunger advocacy group, said Tuesday. “It should not fall on the child.”
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 students anything — until the debt is paid.
Critics call the policies lunch shaming, publicly embarrassing students with overdue accounts in an attempt to force parents to pay the bill.
Under the changes the Cherry Hill district proposes, students would get to select a hot lunch from the meal-of-the-day menu rather than a tuna sandwich 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 for unpaid breakfast or lunch charges, a parent must attend a mandatory meeting with school officials, according to the draft. A student cannot purchase à la carte items such as snacks until full payment is made.
The district is proposing new rules that call for withholding privileges such as prom and after-school activities when meal payments are delinquent. The restrictions vary based on grade level. Students would be allowed to participate in educational field trips, a spokesperson said.
“Prom shaming is not acceptable,” said resident Rick Short, who has four children enrolled in district schools. “It’s not the solution. They need to go back to the drawing board.”
The board was scheduled to formally introduce the policy Tuesday night. A vote is expected on Oct. 15 after a second reading.
School Superintendent Joseph Meloche, through a spokesperson, declined comment before Tuesday’s meeting.
At a work session two weeks ago when the policy was discussed by board members, president Eric Goodwin said he believed the proposed change “strikes a balance of compassion” while holding people accountable. The draft was not read or disclosed to the public.
In August, Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars recommended that 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, Shugars said. She said parents were notified repeatedly but have not paid the fees.
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.
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.
Parello said the proposed changes, if adopted, could conflict with a “lunch shaming” bill Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden), who represents Cherry Hill, plans to introduce that would bar districts from denying a meal to a student because of a delinquent meal account
The draft, however, is a step in the right direction because it would not deny food to students and has provisions to work with families and encourage them to apply for free and reduced meals, Parello said.
“It is definitely a big improvement,” Parello said Tuesday.