CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) - If you don't pay your child's school lunch bill in Hamilton County, starting this week, you'll be turned into a collection agency, which could affect your credit score.
The Hamilton County Department of Educations says the current balance of unpaid lunch bills is more than $100,000. Now they're trying this new method to get that money back.
They're using auto phone calls to notify parents that if they don't pay by 4 p.m. Tuesday, the next step is a collection agency.
Hamilton County changed its pay policy a few years ago. Before then, like many other districts, if a student didn't have their lunch money, they were stuck eating a cheese sandwich and milk.
"Some kids would cry because they wanted what they picked out," Hamilton County Director of School Nutrition Carolyn Childs said.
The school board voted to change that policy in 2008, meaning all kids, Pre-K through eighth, get the same food choices and it goes on their "tab" if they don't have the $2.75 in hand. But, that created a new problem of massive lunch bills never getting paid. They've already racked up $100,640 in debts so far this school year.
"I was one of those parents last year. Five dollars a day, depending on how many children you have, it does add up," Hamilton County parent Ashley Hudgins said.
School officials say they know times are tough, but argue the district suffers when it's forced to pay off parents debts at the end of each year out of the general fund.
"It could've gone for teachers salaries, could've gone for some aides, I mean anything. There are so many needs in the district," Childs said.
From this week on, for every $50 of debt racked up, a report gets sent to the collection agency they've hired. It's up to the agency to turn your info into the Credit Bureau if you still don't pay, which affects credit scores.
"We had been sending letters and parents knew if they got a letter, they didn't pay, that debt was there," Childs said.
School officials hope the reality of a consequence motivates parents to pay.
"Now we're able to have some teeth to it," Childs said.
While some parents say they agree with this new method, some have other ideas, like holding donation drives.
"Chattanooga's a giving community and I think we can intercede before it gets to a situation where it affects a parent's credit rating," Hamilton County grandparent Valitus Edwards, Sr. said.
Since alerting parents Thursday, they've already had several pay up.
The collection agency gets 28% of what they collect.
This only applies to students Pre-k through 8th grad. High schoolers don't have the option to charge. School officials say the largest bulk of the debt is carried by only around 400 Hamilton County families.