SUMMIT — When 15-year-old Keertana Talla was much younger, she went to school one day without her lunch money. She said she was kicked out of the lunchroom and humiliated.

Only recently did Talla realize that this experience is typical for many students across New Jersey.

It's called "lunch shaming" — school personnel publicly humiliating students whose lunch debt is piling up, or who are not able to pay at all. One such incident in Fair Lawn, in the form of an assembly captured on cellphone video, went viral at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. During an assembly, administrators called the students out for being delinquent on lunch or library payments.

About a month ago, Talla began a GoFundMe campaign with the goals of raising awareness and raising funds to help erase lunch debt around the state. The teen, who will be junior at Kent Place School in Summit, said the response has been "amazing," with more than $4,000 donated to her cause so far.

Talla's research brought her to an article on the Willingboro school district, which several years ago announced it would not allow students who were delinquent in lunch payments to continue to eat if they could not afford their meals. Even though Willingboro and Summit are far apart in the state's geography, the story hit home.

"It's a district in New Jersey, that's close to us, and now these kids are not going to be able to get the same kind of lunch as they used to, so I decided that I was interested in sending my money there first," Talla said.

The effort began by just reaching out to family and friends, but interest has been steadily gaining, and now Talla hopes to donate to as many New Jersey school districts as necessary — "and maybe even go farther than that, if possible." Her summer internship in the New Jersey Legislature may wind up shifting policy in the Garden State as well, as she is currently drafting a bill to change the school lunch system.

With her parents, she is also setting up an online business through which 100 percent of the profits will go toward her campaign.

As the fundraising continues, what Talla tries to keep in mind is the empty feeling, in more ways than one, she had when she neglected to bring her lunch money to school years ago.

"These kids who can't pay for their lunch, they go through this feeling every single day," she said. "For me, it was no big deal because it was one day, I got over it. But this happens continuously for these kids and nobody's doing much about it."

Patrick Lavery produces "New Jersey's First News" and is New Jersey 101.5's morning drive breaking news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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