School meals are a very important part of any student’s education. Proper nutrition is necessary for growing bodies and developing minds. Plus, it’s difficult to concentrate on studies when the belly is rumbling from hunger. Feeding students, however, is not cheap, and schools struggle to find the funding. Not all families can afford to pay for hot lunches, unfortunately, and debt begins to grow. Schools are always trying to find ways to recoup their losses, but not all attempts are met with enthusiasm.
The Cherry Hill school district in New Jersey, for example, currently has a debt of around $16,400 for unpaid school lunches so far this year. Administrators have tried various tactics to try and get those debts settled, but so far, nothing has worked. The district enrolls about 11,000 students, and about 20% of those are eligible for reduced cost or free meals. In August, officials decided to aggressively go after the debt problem by only giving tuna sandwiches to students who owed more than $10. They refused to feed any kid with a balance of $20 or more.
The district caught a lot of censure for that move and quickly abandoned it. The current plan of attack would prevent students from participating in extracurricular activities such as field trips or going to the prom for unpaid lunch balances. This does not apply to school athletes who owe for meals.
Students are not immediately cut off from school activities, however. 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 must attend a meeting with the education staff. Parents are also given information and help to apply for free or reduced meals for their children.
Across the nation, there’s pressure on schools to provide free lunches to all students. 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. 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 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.”