unpaid lunches
The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, which provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols

By Erin Roll

Montclair’s students finished off the school year with somewhat less lunch debt than they had last year. But  that decrease isn’t a big one.

As of July 9, there was a total of $98,109 in negative lunch balances on students’ accounts across the district.

At the end of the 2017 school year, the outstanding lunch balance showed 1,568 students had accumulated $107,229.53 in lunch debt, with each student owing an average of $52, according to records.

Montclair High School had the largest negative balance of $29,993.

Glenfield Middle School had the next largest negative balance at $16,284, followed by Hillside with $12,765.

Of the schools, Renaissance Middle School had the lowest lunch debt amount.
Montclair uses an online payment system, MySchoolBucks, in which parents put money into their children’s accounts to pay for lunch.

This year, a total of $63,528 still remained in students’ prepaid accounts however.

In response to notice of last year’s debt, several parents claimed that their children had been charged for meals that they hadn’t even eaten.

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The Montclair Board of Education agreed to revisit its school lunch policy, with emphasis on how lunch debts would be addressed. The district also emphasized that no child has been ever denied a meal because their meal balance was delinquent.

Montclair requires that if a student is behind on his or her school breakfast or lunch bill, the district has to notify the student’s parents and give them 10 days to pay. If the bill goes unpaid, parents are sent a second notice informing them that the child will not receive a meal starting one week from the second notice.

A new law requires school districts to provide a report to the Department of Agriculture on how many students are denied breakfast or lunch due to delinquent payments.

“This information will help determine the need in our schools and what districts are doing to meet this need,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Burlington/Camden), one of the bill’s sponsors. “If there are federal programs that provide breakfast and lunch to our most vulnerable student populations, but schools are not utilizing them, we need to know why.”
In 2017, there had been multiple news reports of “lunch shaming” practices in other districts around the country. Lunch workers would make children wipe down the cafeteria tables or put a “no money” stamp on the child’s hand.

“Knowing how many students have lunch debt can help us address this problem without resorting to problematic solutions that stigmatize children. If there are programs that schools are not participating in that could help, we need to know why,” said

Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden/Gloucester), another one of the bill’s sponsors.

Under the current law, a school in which five percent or more of students are considered economically disadvantaged must have a school lunch program, and a school with 20 percent or more must also provide a school breakfast program.

In Montclair, all of the schools have both a breakfast and a lunch program. Only two of the schools – Bullock and Edgemont – have a percentage of economically disadvantaged students that exceeds 20 percent.

By the numbers
Percentage of students considered to be economically disadvantaged:
Districtwide: 16 percent
Bradford: 12 percent
Buzz Aldrin: 18 percent
Charles H. Bullock: 22 percent
Edgemont: 21 percent
Glenfield: 19 percent
Hillside: 17 percent
Montclair High School: 16 percent
Nishuane: 17 percent
Northeast: 15 percent
Watchung: 6 percent

Jaimie is an award-winning journalist and editor.