Anoka-Hennepin School District officials have agreed on a last-ditch effort to try to get back $160,000 from families owing $100 or more in school meal debts — a collections company.

The state's largest district aims to set up collections by January for families that haven't responded to other means of contact.

One family owes about $4,600 and another has a tab of about $2,000 — all in breakfasts and lunches that have gone unpaid.

"If the case is you don't even respond to us, we know that you're not going to help out with the situation," said Noah Atlas, the district's child nutrition program director. "We don't feel there's any other recourse at this point."

Anoka-Hennepin isn't the first school district to give the debt battle over to collections. Schools nationwide are feeling the pinch of unpaid school lunches, made more pronounced as they've started to meet federal nutrition regulations that added more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to meals and also spiked school lunch costs.

"It's really squeezing out any flexibility for the school meal program to manage other financial issues, such as unpaid meals," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.

The association found in its "State of School Nutrition 2014" report that nearly 71 percent of districts reported that their school nutrition program had student meal debt by the end of the 2012-13 school year, at a median debt of $2,000 per district.

The association is urging Congress to provide more federal reimbursement to match rising lunch costs in the reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It was due for reauthorization Sept. 30, and School Nutrition Association officials hope it happens soon.

Debt has soared recently

The finance problem is pressing in Anoka-Hennepin for the 1 percent of the district's students who owe money, Atlas said. Of the district's nearly 38,000 students, about 250 — or .7 percent — owe more than $250. About 120 students, or .3 percent, owe more than $350.

A high school or middle school meal costs $2.35; an elementary meal costs $2.20. The district raised its lunch price by 10 cents in September to meet rising food costs.

This fall, the school board approved a plan to manage meal debt, including denying a la carte purchases (items such as cookies) even to students with cash in hand if they have negative meal balances totaling more than $50. Under the plan, those debts would be added to the high school fines and fees list, meaning that those with debts couldn't purchase things like dance tickets or parking passes.

Atlas is particularly concerned, because in Anoka-Hennepin, debt is surfacing at younger ages. He'd seen seniors with $500 to $700 in debt throughout their whole school career, but now, some students in middle school are incurring $1,000 debts.

In the 2011-12 to 2012-13 school years, the district's meal debt increased 6 percent. That debt shot up to a 61 percent increase between school years 2012-13 and 2013-14, and a 48 percent increase between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

Reasons that families aren't paying for lunch could run the gamut, Atlas said.

A need for federal guidance

The U.S. Department of Agriculture leaves the prices and crediting for unpaid lunches up to districts to decide — meaning that policies around the country vary. Federal guidance to proceed further would be welcomed, the School Nutrition Association's Pratt-Heavner said.

Anoka-Hennepin uses money left in its account to cover the outstanding debt, but "the size of the outstanding debt was starting to get very large relative to our fund balance," said school board Chairman Tom Heidemann.

The neighboring Osseo School District, with more than 20,000 students, has three families with debts of $100 or more, with the largest unpaid balance at about $270.

In Anoka-Hennepin, families will be offered a payment plan before the collections process. The district hasn't yet contracted with a collections agency. "There needs to be at least some good-faith effort," Heidemann said.

The district's meal costs are still some of the lowest in the state, Atlas said.

The Minnesota Department of Education noted in a 2014 memo authored by the U.S. agriculture department that price-reduced or paid meals must be available to eligible children if they have money in hand. The department added that a school "may take legal action against a household which has not settled its food service debt."

Some schools may take this wording to give students without sufficient funds an alternative meal, like a cheese sandwich. A Utah school made headlines last year when it tossed out lunches of students who didn't have enough money on their accounts.

That's why Anoka-Hennepin is leaving kids out of it. District officials are trying to ensure that cafeteria life for students whose families aren't paying up remains seamless.

"We really are trying to keep this adult-to-adult," Atlas said. "We don't turn students away from the meal."