School Lunchrooms Take Digital Twists and Turns

October 26, 2004 6 min read

Some of the same technologies that allow adults to access their bank accounts and enter secure buildings are now being used to collect school lunch money and track students’ eating habits.

A growing number of cafeterias are installing computerized cash-register systems that let students pay for school meals using personal identification numbers, school badges, and even scanned images of their fingerprints.

The lunchroom uses of those technologies are proving to be a sweet deal for many food-service employees, who say that the new approaches have helped them cut administrative costs and increase student enrollment in the federal free- and reduced-price-lunch program.

“It’s saved us a lot of man-hours,” said Cathy Graham, the food services director for the 2,300-student Pewaukee public schools in Wisconsin, which began using a computerized cashier system in 1998 to ease the daily burden on staff members. It upgraded its system this fall to include touch-screen technologies and digital photos of students.

Before the system was installed, food-service workers had to manually count the money collected for student lunches each day, tally the total number of students who purchased meals, and then record the number of subsidized lunches served so that the school could submit a reimbursement request to the federal government. The process could eat up more than 10 hours a week, and was open to a number of human counting errors.

Now, instead of counting out crumpled dollar bills or fumbling for raffle-size meal tickets, students use a touch screen to enter a four-digit PIN number before every school meal. A computer then shows the student’s picture and a list of meal selections, and deducts the cost of what is bought that day from a prepaid account.

The system keeps a record of all the meals served and calculates the number of free and reduced-price lunches. What’s more, it allows parents to use the Internet to pre-pay lunch fees online, review what their children are eating, and even to restrict the types of food items their children can buy.

“We’re in a technology age,” said Ms. Graham. “So we’re just moving along with the world.”

But while technology offers students and parents a convenient alternative to cash or meal tickets, such systems don’t come cheap or problem-free.

‘Very Expensive’

“They can be very expensive,” said Brad Boyink, the vice president of Meal Magic Corp. The Grand Haven, Mich.-based software-development company writes exclusively for the K-12 food-service market and installs point-of-sale systems in schools nationwide.

The average system costs $4,000 per unit, Mr. Boyink said. In many cases, he pointed out, that cost doesn’t include the scanning or decoding devices needed, support services, and software. And with most schools needing between two to eight checkout units per building, the expense adds up to thousands of dollars just to get started.

“Price is a huge issue,” Mr. Boyink said. “That’s what’s keeping it out of a lot of school systems, plain and simple—price.”

Debra Foulk, the coordinator of business-support services for the 27,000-student Akron, Ohio, school district, knows exactly what he means. Price was a serious concern when her district began looking into cash-register systems in 1998.

This fall, the district spent $700,000 to install a system called iMeal, which uses a scan of each student’s fingerprint to create a 39-digit number that deducts lunch costs from a prepaid account.

“My board had some very serious discussions on going in this direction,” said Ms. Foulk. “This was a big effort to get this up and going.”

Akron district officials visited a number of schools to inspect different point-of-sale systems before selecting one to buy. At that time, the district was using a manual system by which students used meal tickets to purchase their food.

“We were hand-counting 22,000 meal tickets a day,” Ms. Foulk said. “You had to count them accurately; count them by free, reduced, and full price; then report them all and show the lost tickets.”

Scan cards were not seen as a good option, according to Ms. Foulk, because, like meal tickets, they could be lost, and replacement cards can cost $3 to $5 each. But the bigger issue was security, since the cards contained personal information, including a student’s name and photo, much like a driver’s license.

District officials also decided against a PIN system, Ms. Foulk said, because PINs are easily forgotten, and the numbers can be stolen and used by other students.

In addition, touch-screen systems, which use PINs, require a digital photo identification that can be difficult to keep up to date.

By comparison, the fingerprint-image scan system was simple, private, and highly secure, said Ms. Foulk, since students always had their fingers on hand.

Legal Issues

But Mr. Boyink pointed out that fingerprint scanning is a controversial method that’s not legal in every state.

“In Michigan, you cannot do it,” he said, because that state considers it an invasion of privacy. Many parents also fear that their children’s fingerprints could be stolen or misused, he said, adding that there are negative associations with fingerprint technologies because they more typically are used by police.

Fingerprint-image scanning uses a student’s print to create a point-to-point measurement that translates into a series of ones and zeros, yielding a unique identification number. The actual fingerprint scan is then discarded.

“It’s a ‘gee whiz’ technology that’s really cool, but when you go to implement it it’s out of most schools’ range because of price,” Mr. Boyink said.

He said fingerprint-image decoding devices can add $1,000 per unit to a cash-register system.

In addition, the systems are not always ideal for use in elementary and middle schools, because, as children grow, their fingerprints expand requiring them to be rescanned. Plus, experts say that hand cuts or dirt can obscure the print and cause the machine to reject or misidentify the user.

But David Pisanick, the southeast sales and marketing manager for Food Services Solutions Inc.—an Altoona, Pa.-based software-development and -implementation company that specializes in meal services—says that fingerprint imaging is often wrongly maligned.

“Only a very low percentage of students need to be rescanned,” he said, pointing out that most systems require students to register two fingers. On an average day, Mr. Pisanick estimates, less than half a percent of students cannot use the systems his company installs because their fingerprints won’t scan properly. He also argues that the systems do not invade student privacy because the actual fingerprint image is discarded once the system creates the number.

“It’s the Big Brother theory,” he said. “The parents are worried about the government stealing the prints, but what they don’t realize is that the actual image of the fingerprint is discarded, and all that’s used is the number.”

And there’s no way to re-create the image of the fingerprint from the number, he said.

Mr. Boyink, however, said that fingerprint technology doesn’t necessarily offer more advantages than other comparable systems that use scanning badges or PINs. “I’m in support of the technology,” he said, “but like wireless, it still has some growing up to do.”

The biggest advantage of computerized-cashiering systems, according to some school officials, is the increase in enrollment schools have seen for the federal free- and reduced-price-lunch program since introducing the technology. The anonymity and accuracy of the systems have encouraged more parents to sign their children up.

Boost for Enrollment

All the computer screens the students use to buy their lunches are the same regardless of whether they are eligible for the lunch aid, said Sharon Boos, the food-services director for the 4,500-student Kettle Moraine district in Waukesha County, Wis. “More kids are eating [subsidized lunches] because there’s less stigma,” she said.

The systems also make reporting to the federal government much easier and more accurate, many district administrators say. Mr. Boyink’s company, Meal Magic, wants to simplify that reporting process even further. Next year, the company intends to release a nationwide electronic application system for the National School Lunch Program.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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