Why N.J. ordered Deptford to revise its unpaid-meal policy
New Jersey’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights prohibits schools from serving alternate meals to students with delinquent meal accounts.
The Deptford School District landed in hot water this month after announcing it would crack down on unpaid school lunch accounts.
The state ordered the South Jersey district last week to immediately suspend the policy, under which students were served peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwiches, and were restricted from certain school activities, until bills were paid, The school board voted to rescind the policy.
Full price for lunch is $3.25 for elementary students, $3.50 for middle school and $3.75 for high school.
Deptford enrolls about 4,100 students.
What happened in Deptford with the unpaid meals policy?
The Deptford School District enacted its policy to crack down on unpaid meal accounts after some parents accrued hundreds of dollars in debt.
But the change ignited a social media debate and landed the district in hot water with the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees New Jersey’s school lunch programs.
New Jersey’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights signed into law in 2020 prohibits schools from publicly identifying or shaming students with delinquent meal accounts. Schools can’t require those students to sit at a special table, wear a wristband or have a handstamp, or eat an alternate or basic meal, Arleen Ramos-Szatmary, coordinator of the state’s School Nutrition Program, wrote in a letter obtained by The Inquirer under the Open Public Records Act.
The school board rescinded the policy last week and said it would revise it to comply with state regulations.
Deptford is not alone in finding itself in the tricky spot of providing a healthy breakfast or lunch to students while balancing budget concerns. Deptford said some parents racked up hundreds of dollars in meal debt, and its unpaid bill has reached $77,000.
Who qualifies for free or reduced school lunch in the U.S.?
The National School Lunch Program is a federally funded meal program operating in public schools, nonprofit private schools, and residential child-care institutions. School districts are reimbursed for each lunch served. Currently, more than 579,000 of New Jersey’s 1.2 million students are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
Families apply for the program annually. The following students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch:
All children in households receiving benefits from NJ SNAP or NJ TANF/WorkFirst-NJ.
Foster children who are under the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court.
Children participating in their school’s Head Start program.
Children who meet the definition of homeless, runaway, or migrant.
Children who live in a household with an income that falls within federal guidelines. Check with your district..
Can students be barred from activities over unpaid lunch?
Under the New Jersey Working Class Families Act of 2022, a school or district can’t prohibit a student with an unpaid meal account from attending or participating in extracurricular activities such as field trips, school events such as proms and dances, or from receiving report cards or participating in graduation.
Deptford’s policy would have allowed those actions.
Are schools required to serve lunch to every student?
New Jersey laws don’t prohibit schools from denying a meal to a student whose account is in arrears. The district first must take “appropriate steps” to notify the parents. It must also adopt an internal policy for how its food service staff will deny a meal to a student who comes through the line without stigmatizing or shaming the student.
Is a universal lunch program on the horizon?
A bill introduced in June by a group of state lawmakers would gradually make more students eligible for free lunch by the 2028-29 school year.
Under that legislation, all students would get a free lunch, regardless of household income. The bill cleared an Assembly committee in June. It still requires approval by the full Senate and Assembly before going to Gov. Phil Murphy, where it can become law.
Can parents be reported to child protective services for not paying a lunch account?
According to the state, districts may “make the difficult decision” of whether to inform the Department of Children and Families about the lack of meals. But Ramos-Szatmary noted in the letter to Deptford that “an argument could be made that the threat of such a call found within the Unpaid Meal Charge Policy is a misuse of both power and trust. We recommend reviewing this section of the policy. ...”
What’s next for Deptford?
Deptford Superintendent Kevin Kanauss said the school board’s policy committee will draft a new policy that must be submitted to the state for approval before the board may vote on it.
Kanauss said the board hopes to introduce the new policy at an October meeting. Until it has a new policy, the district cannot deny meals because a student account has a balance, the state said.