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."
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.