Of the 2,200 students at Intermediate School 61 in Corona, Queens, 86 percent receive free cafeteria lunches. Some others pay a reduced price, and some are supposed to pay full price. But not all of their parents pay what they are supposed to, and recently, the school’s principal, Joseph Lisa, has been spending a lot of time trying to collect money from them.
He has cornered them in the hallways. He has offered them gentle reminders after school meetings. He has called them and sent them letters suggesting payment plans for debts that might amount to $20 or $30. “We give them little pieces of paper saying, ‘This week you owe $5, $3, 50 cents,’ ” Mr. Lisa said, “but as soon as we collect it from one parent, there’s another who’s falling behind.”
Since 2004, the city has absorbed at least $42 million in unpaid lunch fees. But that is a luxury it can no longer afford, according to the Education Department, which has weathered several rounds of budget cuts, with more to come. The department has been telling principals to collect overdue lunch money or risk having it docked from their school budgets. Of the city’s 1,600 schools, 1,043 owe a collective $2.5 million to the department for meals served in the first three months of this school year. That puts them on track to be $8 million behind by the end of the school year.
New York City’s lunch money problem is costly and complicated, but not unique. The economy has school administrators all over the country scratching for savings even as more parents are falling behind in lunch fees. A September survey by the School Nutrition Association, a professional organization, showed that in 2009-10, 34 percent of school districts saw an increase from the previous school year in the number of meals not paid for. The school district in Albuquerque was among several last year to start serving cold sandwiches and milk, instead of full hot meals, to students whose parents had not paid what they owed. In Wake County, N.C., those students may eat as many fruits and vegetables as they want, but not the rest of the lunch offerings.
In Louisiana, some districts did not feed the children whose parents were in arrears at all, until, in November, the State Legislature passed a law ordering that they be given at least a snack, while directing districts to notify child welfare authorities if a student got just a snack on more than three consecutive days. Framingham, Mass., hired a constable to hand-deliver notices to parents whose bills were still unpaid after the schools had sent them several letters alerting them to their debt.
“We’re in the business of feeding kids, so it’s heart-wrenching to all of us to have to get parents to pay this way,” said Brendan Ryan, director of food services at Framingham Public Schools. In New York City, the Education Department warned principals in the spring that they would have to collect the money, but after principals protested, they were given a grace period. In January, the new schools chancellor, Cathleen P. Black, told principals that they had until Feb. 16.
On Monday, after vociferous complaints from principals, the department once again put off the deadline, though it was unclear for how long. In a statement, Natalie Ravitz, a department spokeswoman, said, “We really need families to cooperate with us in this effort so that we aren’t taking money out of the classroom.”
But some principals said that that was exactly what would happen unless the city came up with an alternative, which seems unlikely.
“The school has become the collection agency, and that’s not their business,” said Randi Herman, the first vice president of the city’s principals’ union.
The issue came up during a City Council committee hearing on Tuesday, where Councilman Robert Jackson, chairman of the education committee, said that deducting unpaid lunch fees would deal “a serious blow to already overstretched school budgets.”
New York City charges $1.50 for a school lunch. Three quarters of the city’s students qualify for free lunch, or lunch at a reduced price of 25 cents; even some of the students charged the reduced price have fallen behind.