New Jersey school district to bar students from prom, field trips over lunch debt

File Photo - Lunch at elementary school in NY (AP Photo/Mary Esch, File)
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A school district in New Jersey has decided students who have more than $75 in lunch debt will be banned from several extra curricular activities.

Students in Cherry Hill who have accrued debt will not be allowed to attend prom or go on field trips, the BBC reports.

The Cherry Hill school board president said the plan had a "balance of compassion" while also "holding people accountable," according to the BBC.

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The new policy was approved last week, CBS Philadelphia reports.

The measure replaces an old policy that said students who owed more than $10 would only be allowed tuna sandwich meals and those with more than $20 in debt would get nothing.

Now, students who cannot pay will still receive hot lunch from the daily menu but no a la carte items. This was seen as a solution to the old policy, but many feel banning students from activities like prom because they have lunch debt is still a form of "lunch shaming."

The reaction to the passage of the policy was largely negative, CBS Philadelphia reports.

"What will happen in my daughter's classroom when one of her classmates can't go on the field trip?" one parent asked. "What will the children say about their classmates? It's sickening to think about, frankly."

The school board has been trying to find a solution for the thousands of dollars worth of unpaid lunch dues, according to CBS Philadelphia.

Two years ago, the district forgave $25,000 in lunch debt and adopted a new policy to pressure parents to pay — or apply for free lunches if they couldn't.

This time, a businessman offered to bail the district out of lunch debt. Local supermarket chain owner, Steve Ravitz, posted on Facebook last month that he would be "happy to solve this issue."

However, Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche did not see the post, and has not heard back from the chain owner after reaching out to him, a public information officer (PIO) for the district told CBS News via email.

In a written statement provided by the PIO, Melcohe said school lunch debts is a "complicated issue" and the district's new policy is "an extreme outlier in New Jersey as other districts continue to follow the state statute that requires meals to be 'withheld.'"

"The lunch debt issue is a complicated one, as simply wiping away the debt that exists does not solve the problem of families and children who are food insecure and who are struggling to provide meals — both in school and at home," Meloche's statement continued.

The superintendent is accepting donations for the schools's Friday Food Backpack Program, which sends "food home with children in 5 of our schools on a weekly basis, providing additional support and sustenance during the weekend," Meloche's statement reads.

Several school districts have grappled recently with how to handle students' school lunch debts.

A school district in Rhode Island came under fire in May after announcing students with school lunch debts would be served cold sunbutter and jelly sandwiches. A local restaurant owner offered to donate $4,000 to relieve students of their lunch debts, but the school denied her donation.

After hearing about Warwick Public Schools' policy, the CEO of Chobani also offered to pay off the students' debt. However, the offer came about a day after the district announced on Facebook it would overturn its policy.

The district explained that it participates in the federally assisted National School Lunch Program that provides nutritional, affordable lunches to all children, and reduced-cost or no-cost lunches to those who qualify.

In July, a Wyoming district sent letters to 40 families who owed at least $10 for their kids' lunches, threatening to put the kids in foster care if their parents didn't pay. Todd Carmichael, the CEO of La Colombe Coffee, offered the district $22,000 to pay off the debt.

Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure that stipulates that all students get lunch, regardless of whether their families are behind in paying meal fees.

The new law also requires that pupils with lunch debt are "not shamed or treated differently."

The legislation requires that all public school students have a "state reimbursable" meal provided, "even if their parent or guardian has unpaid meal fees." It amends a previous act that required students with lunch debt be offered "alternative" meals.