Meade and Associates, a collection agency based in Westerville, Ohio, next month will begin trying to collect an estimated $900,000 in unpaid lunch money from nearly 6,000 Columbus (Ohio) City Schools students.

If parents don’t pay after a few months, the district can notify credit-rating agencies of the unpaid debt, under a contract the Board of Education approved.

The district is turning over lunch money debts of more than $50 for lunches served since the 2009-10 school year. Of those who owe more than $50, the average account is around $150, but some owe more than $400, according to the district.

An estimated 90% of the people who are behind on lunch payments owe the district less than $50, with many owing just a few dollars, but the remaining 10% owe an estimated 80% of the total.

The district is losing about $2,622 a day on average in lunches that go unpaid, and needs the cash to fund its money-losing food-service program. More than 70% of students qualify for a free lunch because they come from low-income households. A small percentage of students get a reduced-price lunch at 40 cents per meal.

Meade and Associates was the sole agency that applied for the work. It's methods will include mail and telephone contact and the agency will keep 26% of collected funds under a one-year contract that could be extended annually for three additional years.

Parents have until March 23 to pay up before their accounts are handed off for collection. School board members have pressured district officials to start cracking down on people who either choose not to pay for their child’s lunch or qualify for a free- or reduced-price meal but fail to apply for the federal subsidy.

Brian Meade, co-owner of the agency, has said offering a payment plan sometimes does not make sense, especially if the amount owed is small, but whether the company does so will be up to the district.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.