New Jersey city handles unpaid school lunch bill issue differently than California

New Jersey city handles unpaid school lunch bill issue differently than California

Two blue states are dealing with the same challenge in very different ways. Yesterday we looked at the new “lunch shaming” bill signed into law by California Governor Gavin Newsom. Students will no longer be given a basic lunch if they fail to pay for their meals and run up a large bill. This will supposedly prevent anyone from feeling singled out, while likely dumping additional costs on taxpayers.

At nearly the same time this was taking place, a different story was unfolding in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The school district has been wrestling with a problem similar to the one being faced in California. They have thousands of dollars in unpaid lunch fees on the books and have been experimenting with ways to address that. For a time, they were giving students with more than ten dollars of lunch debt a tuna sandwich lunch. People complained about that, so they’ve approved a new policy. The students will get a hot lunch, but none of the extra frills. And there are additional restrictions as well. (CBS Philadelphia)

The Cherry Hill Board of Education approved changes to the district’s school lunch policy Tuesday. Students who fail to pay for lunch will now be allowed a hot lunch from the meal of the day menu, but no a la carte items…

The new policy would also keep students who don’t pay after repeated requests from extracurricular events.

The reaction from those at the meeting was largely negative.

The reactions from parents may have been negative, but the reality is the same as it is in California. New Jersey also has a program in place to provide free lunches to students from economically disadvantaged families. Families with slightly higher incomes can also qualify for significantly lower price lunches. And the cost for this program is covered by a grant from the Department of Agriculture so it’s not dumped on the local taxpayers.

If your income is high enough that you’re nowhere near the poverty line, you’re supposed to be taking care of your child’s needs and that includes making sure they can take care of lunch when at school. Those in financial distress can request special accommodations.

And the penalties aren’t particularly severe under Cherry Hill’s program. The tuna sandwich lunch, while nutritious, would definitely get stale after a while and it would be obvious that you were behind on your bills. But if the student is receiving the same hot meal as everyone else and just doing without the extra items, they’re still getting a hot, nutritious meal. Missing out on dessert might prompt a conversation at home as to why they’re not being given lunch money. Alternately, it might prompt the parents to ask where they lunch money they do give their child is actually going.

All of this strikes me as a challenge with obvious solutions available without just declaring that the school has to suck up the loss and figure out how to pay for endless free lunches. If your district wants lunch to be free, bring that up for a vote and build the money into the school budget. If not, take advantage of available programs to help pay for lunches for low-income families and communicate with the rest of the parents about why the bills aren’t getting paid.

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David Strom 6:01 PM on March 29, 2023