A full belly is not only healthy for the body, but it’s also beneficial to the mind. Hunger pains have a way of consuming one’s thoughts and making it difficult to concentrate on anything other than finding food to ease the discomfort. Children, especially, need to keep their bodies nourished as they grow into maturity, and their high energy needs to be constantly replenished. Lately, however, school districts have been fighting back against unpaid school lunches, which some argue is punishing the student for financial situations beyond their control.
Unpaid Lunches = No Prom
The Cherry Hill school district in New Jersey has been looking for a way to recoup its school lunch debt, currently around $16,400 so far this year. The plan to serve only tuna sandwiches to kids whose lunch bills were unpaid didn’t go over so well, so officials came up with another form of attack. Those with meal balances will still be able to get a hot meal, but they won’t be able to enjoy any of the a la carte items, and they may be prevented from participating in extracurricular activities such as field trips and going to the prom.
There are many steps involved, however, before a student is entirely excluded from participating in school events. Letters are sent home weekly to parents, warning them they have ten school days to pay the balance in full. Once the debt reaches about $75, parents have to attend a meeting with the education staff. Parents are also given information and help to apply for free or reduced meals for their children.
In a district that enrolls about 11,000 students with about 20% eligible for reduced or free meals, it’s understandable it would want to recoup some of its losses. However, in August, the plan to only give tuna sandwiches to students who owed more than $10 and actually refusing to serve a meal to any kids with a balance of $20 or more went over like a lead balloon.
Across the nation, there’s pressure on schools to provide free lunches to all students. A healthy meal, they say, is essential in proper education. California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently introduced a law stating all students, whether they have the financial means to pay or not, are to receive a school lunch. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed the Student Success Act, which provides more revenues to schools. In 2020 it’s estimated 761 schools will offer “breakfast to approximately 345,000 students, or 60% of all students.”
Meanwhile, at Cherry Hill, for elementary and middle school students, lunch costs $3, and for high school, the price is $3.10. While the district struggles to find acceptable ways to pay off the meal debt, they will not accept donations. Local businessman Steve Ravitz offered to donate the money to pay off all of the debt, but the school denied the generosity.
Barbara Wilson, the school district spokesperson, said, “We are not accepting donations toward the debt.” And school Superintendent Joseph Meloche and Board President Eric Goodwin explained their reasoning further in a statement: “Simply erasing the debt does not address the many families with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed.”
Would it be unfair to allow donations just for the financially strapped families so that only the children whose parents have the means but aren’t stepping up are subjected to lost privileges? What are school districts supposed to do when parents refuse to pay for their students’ lunches? Shaming the kids is obviously not the right way to go; perhaps there is a way to shame the parents? No matter the case, it will still fall to the taxpayer to make sure everyone’s kids get a meal as well as an education.