Published Online: May 16, 2001
Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as Take Note

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Paying the Piper

Students attending elementary schools in the city of Holyoke, Mass., may find their lunch program threatened next year if some local parents don't pay up.

The school committee in the 7,600-student district in western Massachusetts has decided to crack down on delinquent lunch bills and pursue the debtors in court.

For the past three years, according to William O'Brien, the Holyoke schools' director of food and nutritional services, the district has been trying to make contact with more than 100 parents who owe an estimated $30,000 for this year alone.

The district met with little success until it sent out letters notifying parents that it was going to use the courts. Some quickly paid their balances, but to date the district is still in the red by nearly $12,000.

The city, once a booming industrial town known for its paper mills, now has high rates of unemployment and poverty. Eighty percent of the local students qualify for subsidized lunches.

At the beginning of every school year, parents are sent notices about the school lunch program. Low-income families are asked to submit applications, and qualifying students receive a free or reduced-price lunch every school day. The cost of a reduced-price lunch comes to 40 cents a day. A full lunch costs about 80 cents a day, or an average of $150 a year.

Most parents prepay or pay monthly for the lunch program, Mr. O'Brien said. The parents who don't are sent bills notifying them of their balances.

"But there's no response," the food-services chief said. "The problem is that the program has to support itself. If it starts to fail, then we may have to cut some things from it such as labor, or find ways to lower the cost of the foods."

Some parents have expressed fears that children might go hungry if the problem continues, but Mr. O'Brien said that won't happen.

"The school committee has a firm policy, and we are going to feed every child despite this," he said.

—Marianne Hurst

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Page 3

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