SCHOOL LUNCH GOES ELECTRONIC Students can pay with debit cards


Sorry, kids, the party's over!

No more pigging out on chips and chocolate, then telling mom you bought chicken, mashed potatoes and an apple for lunch instead.

Baltimore County schools are installing a system that can supply parents with a printout of everything a child buys -- or doesn't buy -- in the cafeteria.

If you're one of those parents, you won't have to fumble through your pockets or dresser drawers for lunch money every morning, or run a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to school when junior leaves his lunch on the bus.

The cafeteria has joined the cashless society. Nearly 40 county schools -- 20 that began last spring and another 20 that began this fall -- are hooked into a computerized debit card system that allows families to prepay for their youngsters' breakfasts and lunches for a week, a month or longer. By June, the department hopes all 149 schools will be included.

Although cafeterias still accept money, youngsters can slide through the lunch line with a little plastic card. The cash register (now a "point-of-sale machine") shows the cashier the name of the child buying lunch and alerts her when the account is getting low. Parents can limit their children's purchases to breakfast or lunch entrees, or allow them to buy a la carte items -- chips, ice cream and extra fruit.

The system also tells cafeteria managers how many cartons of milk they sell and who buys what. David Patterson, a specialist in the Office of Food and Nutrition, says the system will speed up lines, keep track of inventories, simplify ordering and eventually increase sales in a system that already serves more than 35,000 full lunches a day.

For students it's still a novelty.

"It's like a credit card; it's like your own Visa," says Turbo Williams, a fourth-grader at Padonia Elementary School. But, thanks to some elementary finance lessons, Turbo knows that the black-and-white card isn't American Express for Kids. He understands that he must have funds in his account before he sits down to lunch.

"It's just like getting money from a bank," he says.

Some area school systems have developed prepaid lunch systems involving tickets or paper punch cards, but only Anne Arundel County has gone electronic to this degree, with a system installed four years ago.

Since the cards came to Baltimore County, lunch lines at Padonia have actually moved a little slower than before. But Principal Dorothy Dorman attributes this to the youngsters' fascination, rather than problems with the system.

"The kids love it too much. This is the highlight of their day," she says.

Cafeteria manager Martha Hinnant is mastering the new system, although she says it is hard to learn with the three days' training the department provides "unless you're a genius."

But, generally, the novelty works.

"I'm real pleased," says Mr. Patterson, who is overseeing the new $800,000 system. "Acceptance is very good. I think it's helped the breakfast program because kids are able to get through the line faster," he says.

Baltimore County, which started school breakfasts only last spring, now serves 3,200 morning meals a day in more than 90 schools. By next month, all schools will offer breakfast.

The new computer program has other advantages, Mr. Patterson says.

It processes applications for free and reduced-price lunches quickly and sends approvals electronically to the schools. It can also eliminate embarrassment for students in the subsidized lunch program, who otherwise would get their ticket books in class every morning.

"It's wonderful once the women [cafeteria workers] get used to it," says Peg Heidel, a former cafeteria manager who now trains other employees. "They don't have to know the prices, they don't have to know the components of a lunch [the federal school lunch program reimburses schools only for full meals with items from specific food groups], and it produces end-of-the-day reports."

The system also will allow a student to "charge" one meal -- $1.45 in elementary schools and $1.55 in secondary schools -- even when there is no money in the child's account. It then produces a letter to the student's parents that says the account is "in arrears."

Turbo Williams says the card has one other advantage over lunch money: "You can never lose it."

Actually, you can. But for $1, it can be replaced, with the remaining balance transferred to the new card. In elementary schools, cafeteria workers keep the cards and youngsters pick them up on their way to breakfast or lunch.

Secondary students keep their own cards -- or they're supposed "Cards are the biggest problem right now," says Ms. Heidel. "High school kids are too cool to carry them." Older youngsters also tend to lose, swap and lend them out.

And children sometimes misuse them.

Ms. Heidel tells of a mother who deposited $37 in her son's account at Loch Raven Middle School. A few days later, she got a notice that the account was almost empty. Where did the money go?

Ms. Heidel pulled a printout of the boy's purchases. It turned out he had treated five or six friends to ice cream every day for a week. He told the cashier it was OK because his mother had said he could spend the money any way he wanted.

Not exactly, the mother said. She changed the account to "lunches only," and the party was over.

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