Georgia School District Hires Collection Agency to Recoup Lunch Debts

"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.

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