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Ohio school district hires collection agency to go after unpaid lunch money

An Ohio school district has hired a collection agency to prove to students and their parents that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The Columbus City Schools hope to recover an estimated $900,000 in unpaid lunch money from almost 6,000 students. The district loses roughly $2,622 every school day in unpaid lunches, according to a report on NBC4i.com. Most of the delinquent accounts average between $150 and $170, according to Meade and Associates, the collection agency in Westerville hired by the district to collect the money.

 “Our goal is to recover the balance in full,” Sean Meade, client relations manager, told msnbc.com. But he added, “we’re here to help,” so if “payment arrangements are needed, we’ll work with the family.”

Columbus City Schools did not return a call from msnbc.com. Unpaid-for lunches are not unique to Columbus. Across the country, districts are struggling as the ailing economy brings more students to school without lunch money.

“It’s one of those issues that we’re seeing more of,” Diane Pratt-Heavner of the Maryland-based School Nutrition Association told msnbc.com. The group recently surveyed 964 of its members. Fifty-three percent said they had seen increases in the number of students unable to pay for lunch.

Schools have been trying to balance budget cuts with new federal nutrition standards that are expected to increase the cost of meal preparation.  In response, Pratt-Heavner said her group would like Congress to require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spell out how schools should respond to requests for unpaid lunches and how to manage the debt.

“The people working in our school cafeterias are not in this line of work for the money – they want to serve all their kids – but at the end of the day, the new nutrition standards for school meals are raising the cost of serving school meals, and school nutrition programs simply cannot afford to allow unpaid meal charges go unchecked,” Pratt-Heavner told msnbc.com.

Until then, school districts continue to make accommodations for students who can’t pay. Some offer alternative meals of cheese or peanut butter sandwiches. Districts also try various methods of collecting debts, such as phone calls and letters to parents.

Pratt-Heavner said more districts are turning to collection agencies.

Meade told msnbc.com his agency will start contacting parents by early April, using phone calls and letters. Of every dollar collected, the company will earn 26 cents in commission.

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