CORSICO, Italy — After being elected last year, Mayor Filippo Errante found that this town, abutting Milan, had accrued an “alarming” debt of more than a million euros in unpaid school lunch fees. So he decided to take what he called an iron-fist approach.
Children whose parents were up to date on payments would be allowed to eat cafeteria-prepared meals. Children whose parents had not paid would not.
“The era of the ‘furbetti’ is over,” Mr. Errante said in a statement on social media last month, using a term that translates to cunning, akin to gaming the system.
Some called the decision a form of blackmail. Others criticized it for creating what they said was a schoolroom apartheid, where some children ate hot meals while the others snacked on homemade panini or a slab of cold pizza.
Petitions and protests ensued. Teachers, principals and many parents rallied in support of those children who would not be given lunches, even as nearly all agreed that school fees should be paid.
While the mayor’s decision sowed about equal doses of division and solidarity, it also highlighted the worsening economic straits of a number of municipalities in Italy, at a time when federal funding to cities has been slashed by almost €12 billion, about $12.9 billion, since 2011.
“A mayor has to make choices either to allow the debt to increase or to stop it by taking measures,” Mr. Errante said, defending his decision to cut off cafeteria access to nearly 500 families.
Elsewhere, local administrations have been forced to increase taxes, always an unpopular move, or to raise money in other ways, like reducing staff sizes, privatizing municipal services or selling real estate.
In the past, cities “could be sweeter, less severe,” in drumming up funds, said Andrea Ferri, who oversees local finances for Anci, an association of Italian cities. Now they are forced to take tougher measures and to rethink what services they can offer.
“For municipalities, it’s become a drama,” Mr. Ferri said.
Since Jan. 7, when the measure went into effect, that drama has intruded on Corsico’s schools, setting off a debate over the interference of politics in education, where the lunch hour and meal are seen as an integral part of the curriculum.
“Children were used to reach an objective,” said Gianni Alberta, a local member of Coordinamento Genitori Democratici Onlus, an association of parents.
“It’s reasonable that the mayor gets citizens to fulfill their duties, but children are minors and can’t be held responsible,” he said. “You can’t deny food to a child. There are rights protected by the law.”
While there is widespread support in Corsico for the mayor’s quest, there has, in fact, been considerable debate over how the decision was carried out.
Some parents complained that the no-food provision had been applied to families who had owed nearly €6,000, as well as those who were late on just one payment of €13.
Just before Christmas, Silvia Benati, who has worked intermittently since she lost her job at a local factory five years ago, discovered that she owed the city €170 and that her daughter would not get lunch when school started again this month.
“I was frightened,” Ms. Benati said. “I panicked. I didn’t want my daughter” to lose face, she said.
“But I am not a furbetta, if I were I wouldn’t be in this situation,” scraping by supporting a family of five, she said. “I don’t want social assistance, I want a job.”
Many have been concerned that the mayor’s decision resulted in a public shaming that could have repercussions for the children.
“Lunchtime is part of the school experience, it’s not just a moment of nutrition but one of sharing and verbal exchange,” said Manfredo Tortoreto, the principal of one of Corsico’s three state elementary school districts, who complained that the mayor had “bulldozered” over the “jurisdiction and competence” of the schools in his efforts to recover a debt.
There is concern, too, that the children most affected by the provision belong to families whom Mr. Tortoreto described as “lemons that have already been squeezed dry” by life.
Some are the children of foreigners without legal permission to remain in Italy, others of parents with a history of mental illness. Others’ parents had recently lost their jobs.
Still more live in poverty, but their parents had not applied for social service benefits for fear of having their children taken, said Claudia Pisati, the principal of the district that includes Curiel Elementary School, in one of Corsico’s tougher neighborhoods.
“For some children, it’s the healthiest, if not the only, meal they will have all day, so it’s even more important,” she said of the lunch program. These children are already in strenuous situations, she added.
“We have to encourage policies that include them, and not the opposite,” she said.
One mother, Anita Cimino, knows the struggle, raising four children in a squat while her companion is behind bars.
“Before denying a child lunch they should have visited every home to see if there were problems,” said Ms. Cimino, who owes more than €2,000 in lunch bills. She said she was trying to work out a payment plan with the city.
In the meantime, her son Giovanni, a student at the Curiel, has been eating regularly. Camst, a catering company in charge of school lunches, has been bringing extra portions so that no child goes unfed.
“If there’s enough food, he eats,” she said.
“The janitor said she’d call me if there wasn’t a meal for Giovanni,” she added. “So far she hasn’t called.”
Despite the controversy, Mr. Errante said he believed that the city’s decision had been vindicated. In just a few weeks, hundreds of families caught up with their late payments, in one case paying €5,800, he said.
And after the initial protests, the city adopted an installment plan allowing families to pay what they could, even as little as €10 a month.
So far, the city has recovered just under half of the €1.2 million in overdue fees, through repayments and installment settlements. The remaining unpaid fees mainly concern families whose children have moved on to middle school, and the city has pledged to take action and is considering withholding a percentage of the parents’ salaries or confiscating vehicles.
The mayor said he would set up a fund to assist the neediest families. But he also said that the no-food provision would be enforced in the case of families who do not make future payments.
“Phase 2 begins in February,” he said. “If you don’t intend to pay, your kid doesn’t eat.”
But in a country where fussing over meals is a national pastime, mothers and teachers are determined to make sure no child goes unfed.
“Mothers really collaborated” after the rule went into effect, said Francesca Vitali, a fourth-grade teacher at the Curiel, where about half of the school’s 90 students had outstanding payments after the Christmas break. Most have begun installment plans to pay the fees.
“Once they found out what the mayor wanted to do, they protested by bringing sandwiches for all,” she said. “We all agreed that the furbetti had to pay, but that children should stay out of it.”