Officials of the cash-strapped Brantley County School District insist the new policy is the best way to recoup losses and prove to auditors that the debt would not simply be foisted on taxpayers.
"We got to try all ways of trying to recover the debt," said Van Herrin, vice chairman of the Brantley County Board of Education.
The district's school lunch debt runs about $20,000, only a fraction of the district's approximately $20 million budget. But federal law requires that school nutrition programs be self-sufficient and end each fiscal year with balanced budgets.
"At the end of the day, the taxpayers are going to be picking up the bill for whatever's left," Herrin said. "But we've got to show to the auditors that we've tried every other way."
Indebted parents will be charged 40 percent interest on their childrens' school lunch tab, which the district will use to pay the collection agency.
Brantley County's school lunch troubles reflect a nationwide picture of hunger and economic woes in America. According to the School Nutrition Association, districts across the country have reported upticks in school lunch debts. For the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent figures available from the association, 46 percent of school districts reported an increase in unpaid meals and 15 percent reported a "strong increase."
Kimberly Stone, PTO president of the Brantley County's Hoboken Elementary School, hadn't heard of the district's new plan, but thought a collection agency might be going too far, especially by imposing such a high interest rate.
People should pay for their children's lunches, she said, but "40 percent interest rate -- that's ridiculous for anything. Especially for that. The kids have to eat."
Cindy Ham, Brantley County School District's director of nutrition, said individual debts range from a few dollars to about $150.
Ham declined further comment, saying she had been advised by the school board attorney not to speak about the new policy.
"It's not that we've got anything to hide because we don't," she said. "We're not so different from any other school system."
Low-Income Families Could Face Collection Agents Over School Lunch Debts
Brantley County is not alone in hiring a collection agency to go after parents who don't pay their children's school lunch bills. School districts in Pennsylvania, Iowa and West Virginia have also used collection agencies.
But Amy Kalafa, the Connecticut filmmaker behind the non-profit project to improve school lunch programs, calledTwo Angry Moms, criticized not only Brantley County's decision to turn over parents to debt collectors, but also the system that put them in debt in the first place.
She advocated for providing all school children with free lunch, noting that bigger cities with higher poverty levels receive money from the federal government for such programs.
"It's a travesty to be going after families," she said. "That's so sad."
According to 2008 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the median income in Bradley County is below the state average and the poverty level is above the state average. Little more than 6 percent of the population has a college degree.
"Unforunately some of our children, when they leave our school system, they don't get another good meal until they come to our breakfast," Herrin said.
School officials said they will neither deny food to students whose parents have delinquent lunch bills nor substitute a cold menu alternative, a move adopted by other districts as a way to both force parents to pay their bills and to lower school lunch program costs.
"It's not that we're going to refuse anybody any food," Herrin said. "That's not how it goes."
The school district already offers free breakfast for all 3,500 students. A free and reduced price lunch program is also heavily advertised, but Herrin said pride prevents many parents from signing up.
Kalafa said singling out children who can't afford lunch stigmatizes both the child and the parents. She noted that some districts around the country have separate lines for students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Unpaid School Meals a Growing Problem Across the Country
Susan Bennett, manager at Medical & Business Bureau in Waycross, Ga., the collection agency chosen by Brantley schools, declined to discuss the agreement, but said agents do take into account the area's socio-economic standing when collecting unpaid bills.
"We really operate a lot different than most collections agencies," she said. "A lot of these people we see on the street. We know them."
Bennett said her agents start with phone calls to negotiate a payment plan. They follow up with letters.
"Some are firm," she said of the letters. "If we have a good number, we might call them a couple of times a week."
Herrin said that while the district could pursue legal action against parents who fail to respond to the collection agency, "we're not going to have people locked up over this."
Medical & Business Bureau also collects debts owed to a school district in neighboring Ware County, but that district's nutrition director said the collection agency was used only twice in the last five years because district officials prefer to work with the families themselves.