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Deptford schools end unpaid meal policy

District reverses itself after consulting with state Department of Agriculture

Joseph Metz/The Sun
After fierce public backlash, Superintendent Kevin Kanauss reversed a policy that restricted meals to some students who incurred food debt.

Deptford school Superintendent Kevin Kanauss has announced the end of a controversial policy that restricted meals to students who incurred food debt.

The district informed the community of the reversal after consultation with the state Department of Agriculture.

“This policy will be suspended effective immediately,” Kanauss said at a board of education meeting earlier this month. “All students will be offered school breakfast and lunch, regardless of the balance on their meal count.”

The policy – an update effective in 2015 – restricted the lunch menu for students who incurred a debt of at least $50 in food charges until the debt was paid off. The policy was based on grade level; students with debt in grades six through 12 were denied breakfast or lunch.

The school district originally enacted the policy after the total debt for unpaid school meals among 700 students exceeded $68,000, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“A parent’s refusal to meet or take other steps to resolve the matter may be indicative of more serious issues in the family or household,” the original policy stated. “In these situations, the principal or designee shall consult with and seek necessary services from both the county Board of Social Services and the Department of Children and Families, Division of Child Protection and Permanency, as appropriate.”

Public reaction to the policy was negative, with parents immediately voicing their concerns about withholding food from struggling families.

“So, what person in their right mind is going to withhold food from children who already have food insecurity and come from either dysfunctional homes, abuse, poverty and mental illness,” said Deptford resident Amy Marie Murphy.

“So, punishing innocent children and still expect them to thrive while in the state’s hands for six hours a day, five days a week, is appalling.”

The policy also attracted the attention of Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman, who called it “evil” on Twitter.

“I don’t know how to say this any clearer: School lunch debt should not exist,” he said in his post. “Stop humiliating kids.”

Kanauss suggested at the board meeting that families who qualify should apply for free and reduced meals with an application on the school district’s website.

“However, as stated above, these factors will not affect a student’s ability to get a school meal,” he explained. “Going forward, we will reevaluate our policy and process for collecting past due balances, which will be conducted independently from meal service.

“We thank you for your feedback in this process and look forward to finding an equitable solution for all.”

The next board of education meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, at the board’s building.

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