For parents who have ever had to rush to school to replenish their child's empty school lunch money account, help has arrived.
Starting this year, the Harford County school system is offering Cafeprepay, a program that lets parents pay for school lunches with a credit card from a computer. Users pay a fee of up to 6 percent of the amount in the account.
The program was tested in some county schools last spring, said Karen Sarno, supervisor of food and nutrition for Harford schools.
"We piloted the program in a few schools because we wanted to be sure we wouldn't have any problems with money being credited wrong, or people having credit card problems," Sarno said. "It went very smoothly. So this year we have the Web site listed on the menus to remind parents that they can use it."
The program is available to all families and is optional, Sarno said.
"Parents don't have to use this system to pay for lunches; they can still pay at the school," she said. "However, I think if they try it, they'll like it."
Cafeprepay was created in 1999 by Comalex Inc., a company based in Naples, Fla., that designs and markets software for school food services. Frederick County was the first Maryland jurisdiction to use the program, followed by Kent County and now Harford.
Frederick resident John Sherwin has used the program for two years to pay for his sons' lunches.
"It stopped me from worrying about whether the boys had lunch money every day," Sherwin said. "If I think they're out of money, I just go to the computer and pay into their accounts. It's as easy as that."
Frederick County schools began offering the program four years ago, and the number of users has grown each year, said Peggy Green, assistant food services officer for the county.
"The first year we had $1,000 in transactions," Green said. "Then, last year we had $240,000 in payments. Once parents use it, they like it and use it every month."
The only problem Frederick has experienced involves parents inadvertently making payments to the wrong school, she said.
"We're able to get it fixed easy enough," Green said. "It's safe. No one has reported a card being overcharged or anything like that."
Green gave examples of some benefits to food service employees who work with the accounts.
"The kids get a pin number, and this speeds up the line as they go through it," she said. "It has made a world of difference in the number of nonsufficient funds checks we receive. That saves me a lot of time, because I don't have to collect on them."
Sherwin, father of Michael, 11, and Bobby, 13, said the system helped him recognize a surprise on one of his son's accounts.
"At some point, I noticed my sons' money was disappearing quickly," he said. "I would pay at the beginning of each month and he'd need more money before the end of the month. They were able to pull up his lunch charges and I found Bobby was eating two lunches per day."
Sherwin said one improvement he would like to see would be to have the account monitored to make sure students weren't eating twice or ordering too many a la carte items.
In Harford, Sarno said she has seen the quicker movement of lines and sees Cafeprepay as a way to get more kids to eat school lunches.
"When kids bring a crumpled dollar and a handful of change to pay for lunch, it slows down the line," Sarno said. "We asked kids why they brought their lunches to school, and most said to avoid the line so they can eat and visit with their friends longer. Cafeprepay helps us get kids through the line quicker."
Sarno said the system had 50 to 100 transactions a month during the test period. She said she hopes more people will use the program this year, and pointed out that the program allows some anonymity for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches.
"Kids who get reduced lunches can pay their portion online and no one knows anymore who gets what," Sarno said. "You just create an account, type in credit card information once, and you're done. It makes life easier for everyone."
For more information on the program, or to create an account, go to www.Cafeprepay.com.