A New Jersey school is making headlines and capturing the attention of presidential candidates over a proposed plan to address school lunch debt.

The Cherry Hill school district first stirred up controversy over the summer when they suggested that students with more than $20 in debt would be fed tuna fish sandwiches. According to NBC News, that plan was later revised to include banning students who owe money from school activities. The latest iteration of the proposal means high school students with a $75 unpaid tab would be forced to forgo prom.   

School board members in the district located just outside Philadelphia, have left it up to the principal’s of each school to enforce the policy. Prom is at stake for high school seniors, but students in lower grades could be forced out of extra-curricular activities, class trips and other school dances until the lunch debt is paid.

One board member told NBC that he is concerned about how the policy will affect a student’s ability to get into college. Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Cory Booker, who hails from New Jersey, have also made their concerns over the lunch debt policy public.

In a tweet, Senator Warren called it “cruel and punitive.” She added, “Every kid needs and deserves a nutritious meal in order to learn at school. My plan will push to cancel student breakfast and lunch debt and increase funding to school meals programs so all students can get a nutritious meal.”

Sanders echoed her sentiments by saying that “‘School lunch debt’ is not a phrase that should exist.”

News of the policy also prompted Booker to weigh in on what he would do about the issue if he became the country’s next President. In a tweet, he promised to “fight for universal free lunch and relieve all school lunch debt.” 

Unpaid lunch balances are an issue in 75 percent of America’s school districts, according to a 2019 Shool Nutrition Trends Report, prepared by the School Nutrition Association.

In 2018, lunch debt made headlines for another reason. A charity in honor of Philando Castile, who was murdered by Minnesota police during a traffic stop in 2016, agreed to pay off the remaining balances of every student at all 56 schools in Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, where Castile worked.

At the time California Senator Kamala Harris tweeted, “Erasing student lunch debt is an incredible way to honor the memory of Philando Castile. It is also a stark reminder that we need to reform our school lunch programs to ensure no student goes hungry or is humiliated because of overdue debt.”

Local businesses offered to pay off the balances in Cherry Hill, but school officials have declined the offer.

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