New Jersey

Students, Parents Slam Cherry Hill District's Lunch Debt Plan

"The easily recognizable tuna fish sandwich will become a badge of shame"

Impassioned students and parents at a New Jersey town made their voices heard as they slammed a plan to take away meals for students with outstanding lunch debt.

Community members gathered Tuesday night for a meeting to discuss the strict enforcement of a policy that would affect students at the Cherry Hill Public School District. Under the policy, students with an outstanding debt of $10 or more would get a tuna sandwich for lunch, while those owing $20 or more would get no lunch at all.

"This is ridiculous," one community member said during public comment in front of the district's board of education. Another man called the situation a "public relations fiasco" and a "disaster."

The uproar comes after the district earlier this month proposed enforcing the policy, which has been on the books since 2017. The policy, Superintendent Joseph Meloche said, is in line with state requirements, but has not been enforced.

The district contends that it has been challenged by unpaid lunch debts over the last few years. In 2017, it forgave about $25,000 in lunch debt, but despite that, it now once again finds itself about $14,000 in the hole, Meloche said.

"Wiping out the debt - paying the money that that family owes - does not help those children because we've been feeding the kids and we will continue to feed the kids," Meloche said during Tuesday's meeting.

Nearly 20% of students in the Cherry Hill Public School District are considered "economically disadvantaged," NBC News reported. However, board of education member Ruth Schultz said that while some families can't afford to pay their debts, others simply refuse to.

Still, parents and students oppose the district's plan to collect the money.

"The easily recognizable tuna fish sandwich will become a badge of shame. What the board may fail to recognize is that school cafeterias are not always friendly places, and students will be stigmatized because of the food they carry," Oliver Adler, student body president at Cherry Hill East High School, said.

Cherry Hell West High School 9th grader Eva Friddell implored board members not to "take it out on the kids for what the parents have done."

The school board said it has not yet withheld lunch from any student, adding that it will revise the policy and call for a vote on it in September.

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