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Students say 2 p.m. is too late for lunch, but state law is murky

Students at Paul Robeson High School are served lunch at 2 p.m. or later. As we reported earlier this month, many students at the phasing-out school say the schedule leaves them hungry and unable to focus on classwork by the second half of the school day.

“Later in the day, my stomach [is] talking to me, and the teacher is talking to me at the same time,” senior Akeem Pearce told me. “I don’t know who to listen to.”

Our readers asked whether it is legal for a city school to serve lunch so late in the day. The short answer is yes, according to the letter of the law — but maybe not according to the spirit.

State law governing school lunch schedules does not specify a window of time for serving lunch, but rather requires that schools serve lunch at a “reasonable time,” which could vary from community to community.

Overcrowding and co-locations — which ask multiple schools stationed in the same building to share a single cafeteria, gym and auditorium — have caused some schools to complain that they are unable to schedule lunch at a reasonable time.

In response to complaints about the lunch schedule at Manhattan’s P.S. 116, which is severely overcrowded, Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh introduced a bill last March that would require schools to serve lunch within a specific time window.

Under Kavanagh’s bill, schools couldn’t schedule students for lunch until at least two and one-half hours after the start of the school day, and all students would have to have a lunch break by four hours after the first bell. Under that rule, Robeson would be required to begin serving lunch by 12:30 p.m. at the latest.

“The notion is that if you’re going to have a full school day, you need a break to eat,” Kavanagh told me. “For people who feel like 2 o’clock is not a reasonable time, that’s already a violation of state law.”

The bill failed to gain traction during the 2011 legislative session, but Kavanaugh said he hoped his colleagues would discuss it this spring.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott told me after the marathon Panel for Educational Policy meeting Feb. 9 that he could not judge whether 2 p.m. is too late for schools to serve students lunch without knowing a school’s individual situation — and he was not familiar with complaints about Robeson’s lunch hour.

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