Cherry Hill is the region’s latest public school system where a controversy about overdue student lunch payments has left a sour aftertaste. A similarly unappetizing "lunch shaming” scenario arose last month in upstate Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District. Both instances point out the necessity for clarity, as well as compassion, in food programs for kids, particularly when food-related issues are so politicized and polarizing in America.

As The Inquirer’s Melanie Burney reported, Cherry Hill parents were outraged by a school official’s Aug. 13 suggestion that students who haven’t paid their overdue lunch bills be served only tuna sandwiches until their accounts are current. The families of about 1,000 students have collectively amassed more than $18,000 in overdue payments; the majority are not enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program, although some may qualify.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania school districts have excessive if not draconian school lunch payment enforcement options, including notification of state child welfare authorities, presumably reserved only for cases implicating the most egregious little offenders.

New Jersey Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D., Camden), who chairs the education committee in the lower house, said Monday she is drafting a legislative proposal to prohibit any public school district in the state from notifying child welfare authorities in connection with a school lunch account. A measure of this sort sounds refreshingly like common sense, and a viable way to make good on a program established nationally in 1946 to help families afford their children’s school lunch. Oregon is dramatically expanding free student lunch programs, a praiseworthy idea unlikely to see the light of day in New Jersey soon.

In Pennsylvania, faced with more than $22,000 in delinquent accounts, Wyoming Valley West went so far as to warn families that seriously delinquent boys and girls might be placed in foster care, as if forcing the separation of children from their parents was merely an administrative or political tool. Then it dramatically spurned, before dramatically accepting, the generous offer of La Colombe coffee’s CEO Todd Carmichael to satisfy all of the accounts.

Cherry Hill school officials have made it clear they are seeking an in-house solution, which is wise for reasons including the value of, and responsibilities inherent in, local control of public education.

Private local scholarships and grassroots educational foundations are all well and good. But a public school district ought not to put itself in a position of regular reliance on corporate benefactors to underwrite routine operations — and basic student needs — like food service.

Cherry Hill administrators, teachers, and parents are best positioned to sort out the situation, and will get a chance to start at a regular school board meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Carusi Middle School, 315 Roosevelt Dr. The district on its own can’t dramatically alter, let alone scrap, its feeding programs, which involve federal and state dollars (and regulations). But adjustments can be made and solutions found.

"Kids need to eat,” says superintendent Joseph Meloche. “And kids who eat do better in school.”

A lesson worth keeping in mind.