NJ considers plans to end lunch shaming and address lunch debt
TRENTON — Creating a school lunch fund within each district in New Jersey and setting new limits on how student lunch debt can be addressed are part of a legislative package that cleared a necessary step in the state Assembly on Monday.
The four measures are aimed at putting an end to "lunch shaming" of students, according to Democratic Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, a primary sponsor of each bill.
Lampitt represents parts of Burlington and Camden counties, including Cherry Hill, which has been a lightning rod for criticism over its reworked lunch debt plan this school year.
In October, the Cherry Hill Board of Education approved a lunch debt plan that would restrict student access to certain extracurricular activities, including school dances and the prom, once a student's account had lunch debt of $40.
“There has been a lot of scrutiny in recent months about the handling of student meal debt and I believe we’ve lost sight of the most integral part of this issue, student well-being,” Lampitt said in a written statement. She also said the measures would require schools to be more involved in notifying families of debt and connecting them with the appropriate resources.
All four measures were approved by the Assembly Education Committee Monday and now go to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin for review.
The legislative package includes bills that would do the following:
— Require the state Department of Agriculture to promote school meal programs.
— Make it clear that a school district is not required to restrict a student's access to school meals if a school meal bill has an outstanding balance.
— Require school districts to take certain actions to increase participation in free or reduced priced meal programs, while banning "lunch shaming" of students with an outstanding balance and limiting certain district actions in collecting unpaid school meal fees.
— Require each school district to establish a “School Meal Fund” to assist students with school lunch debt. The fund would also take donations.
Amid the Cherry Hill school debt headlines in October, the nonprofit Rays of Hope began an online petition that noted the issue of school lunch debt and so-called “lunch shaming” isn't limited to one New Jersey community.
Alina Dezoysa, the organization’s youth president, said her fellow youth members looked into the school lunch policies of about 15 districts around New Jersey and found that most of them “state that if a parent owes money the school is permitted to call social services, and in some cases the police to do a wellness checkup because apparently, the school districts view this as abuse and neglect."
Rays of Hope advocates for an ultimate goal of securing a school lunch for any student who needs one.
“Together this legislation addresses all facets of the problem, providing students with the nutrition they need while removing penalties for problems that are beyond their control,” according to another of the lunch debt bill sponsors, Democratic Assemblyman Louis Greenwald.