5 benefits to school lunch technology

Courtesy: EdWeek.org

Recently I read School Lunch Fingerprint Technology in Motion on EdWeek.org. At every school in which I have worked in Chicago Public Schools, children get laminated, paper lunch tickets with their names written on them. They turn the tickets into the lunch ladies for their lunch at the end of the lunch line and the lunch ladies make tally marks in pencil on a sheet of paper. I have wondered about the efficiency of that system…

1) Automation leads to savings I think the lunch line should be modernized to save money, as well as errors in tallying. I don’t remember where I read or saw it (maybe it was the movie Lunch Line or Chef Ann Cooper), but money is saved when when school cafeterias are automated. All I remember is that the savings are substantial. (I hate not having exact information, but I think this is important to mention).

2) Reduced stigma of free/reduced lunches With older kids who are more aware about having a lunch ticket and what that might mean about the family’s money situation, I think it would be great if all kids could simply punch in a number or use their thumbprint to get their lunch and then no one would know who paid what. Most kids that I worked with were too young to be stigmatized by holding a lunch ticket and the kids who packed their lunches didn’t seem to care, but they sure noticed what was on their friends’ trays. Trade a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a small bag of flaming hot cheetos? Yes.

3) Moving faster in line Certainly the children who pack their lunches are able to breeze through the line and get seated in the cafeteria first. The kids with the lunch line are *usually* not slowed down by their paper tickets, but just by the sheer number of children making their way through the line. If automation gives back a few minutes, that would be valuable considering how short lunch periods are.

4) Instant data tracking What are kids buying? Are certain menu items more popular than others? Without hard numbers, administrators can only guess. Even better — let’s track food waster AFTER the meal to see what is thrown out.

5) Parents can track food consumption If the data is shared by email or online with parents, they can find out what their children are eating at lunch and whether or not they are purchasing ala carte items with banked funds. As it currently stands, parents can only wonder.

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27 Responses to 5 benefits to school lunch technology

  1. my kids' mom November 14, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Our Atlanta school system uses mylunchmoney.com The kids have to memorize a 5 digit number to type in, but once they learn it they keep it all through school. We get an email when our account is low and we add more money to it online. As simple as they come.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

      Wow, that’s great!

  2. Die, Food Dye! November 14, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Great points! I like your points about stigma being erased by automation, and tracking waste to see what is popular or not. On a tangent, I have always wished we could do something about all the wasted foods. Kids don’t eat everything in their lunches, sometimes just a third or half. I’m on my school’s nutrition committee (Atlanta) and would love ideas on how larger school districts are handling waste. For instance, I don’t see any recycling or composting going on when I eat lunch with my daughter. Just random thoughts…Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

      I don’t know how schools manage their waste, but I know people at the Academy for Global Citizenship, which is a zero waste school and I can get their input! That could be a great guest post.

    • Neala November 15, 2011 at 1:48 pm #

      At my primary school we had “piggy buckets” where leftovers would go. Farming families were able to take home the leftovers to feed to their pigs or chickens.

      Thought that is in New Zealand, where almost all students bring their lunch as there are no cafeterias in primary schools (at least that I know of).

  3. Sara DeMay November 14, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    I have to say, more automation and info sent to parents electronically would be great. Recently I realized it was about time to put more money on my son’s lunch account (he is in middle school). When I logged in, almost all of the money I had put on the account two months before was still there. When I questioned him, he admitted he hadn’t been eating lunch for the last two months because the line is too long. I now monitor the funds weekly to make sure he is at least purchasing lunch, but I can’t tell for sure what he is buying….or if he is actually eating it.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:30 pm #

      What a good example about why parents needs to know what’s happening in the cafeteria. Kids don’t volunteer this information!

  4. Lynn November 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm #

    When I was in school (in the 90’s) we had a scanner system. Each kid had a laminated card with a barcode on it. In elementary school, the teacher would take attendance with the cards, and we had to tell her if we were buying lunch or not. She would put the cards for those buying lunch in a separate pile, and when it was lunch time, she would pass them out. We set the cards barcode up on our lunchtray, and the lunch lady collected and scanned them as we left the line. We ate lunch as a grade, so it was easy for them to keep each grades cards apart, and after lunch they turned the cards into the office, and a secretary would put the cards back in each teacher’s mailbox for the next day. It was kind of like a credit card. This also allowed the lunch ladies to know how many students were buying lunch that day (the teachers had to turn in a lunch count each morning with attendance) so it also lowered food waste, because they knew exactly how many lunches they needed to make before they started making them. I’m sure they always made a few extras just in case, but I’m sure it helped. In high school, these cards became our student id’s…they had the same barcode, but also our picture, and we used them to buy lunch and check out library books. We were responsible for keeping them with us at all times. This was before schools made kids wear their ids.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

      We all have ID cards these days and it makes sense that kids would have them too. Thanks!

  5. Tina November 14, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

    The downside of only inputting a number is that it doesn’t matter who is using your kid’s number, you still have to pay for the lunch. It would be helpful if there was some way of preventing that. I’m sure it was only ever an accidental data input error, but I had to pay for several school lunches that my son didn’t eat since he took his lunch every day. I thought it was important to mention that downside since it’s something we came across.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

      That’s unfortunate — good thing you caught it!

  6. Alex November 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Maybe it’s just me, but points 4 and 5 seem a little “big brother”-ish to me.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

      You are right about that, but data is being collected on all of us all the time. Think about how much data grocery stores, banks, and credit card companies have on us. They know us too well.

  7. Ellysa D November 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    I like the point about keeping track of wasted food. I know you’ve addressed before the issue of kids throwing away the vegetables and such that the school is required by the state to put on the tray- but if there was a notice of hey, they’re eating the peas and throwing away the carrots, maybe the peas would be offered more often. My school also had a system where there was an empty crate next to the trash can- my friends who were required to get milk with their lunch, but didn’t drink it were able to put it in the crate and it was recycled. I don’t know how sanitary it is, but it made more sense to me than throwing the milk out. One friend in particular got free/reduced lunch, which allowed her to purchase ONLY the hot meal- so she’d get that, pay for a bottle of juice out of her pocket, eat the tater tots and drink the juice, and throw the rest of it away. The state was paying for food that was wasted, instead of allowing her to get something she would have eaten- a salad or the pizza bar. I think some system of tracking that waste would have been a plus.

    We had plastic lunch cards (kind of like a library card) that every student had. Our parents could put money in online, send it in for us to put in to our accounts, or they were connected with the free/reduced lunch list. Everyone had the same thing, so no one knew who was getting free/reduced/full price, and they had our picture on, so we couldn’t get confused with someone else’s account.

    • Mrs Q November 14, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

      Thank you for sharing! Waste is a big problem. 🙂

  8. JFS in IL November 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm #

    Out here in U-46 (Elgin, etc.) the kids get their i.d.s scanned and that is how they pay for lunch. I get an email alert if the fund on the card goes too low…so I can add more money. I can also log on (MealPay, I think it is w/o looking) and and see exactly what the kidlets have been buying. I can also set the account to either allow full lunches only or a la cart.

  9. A November 14, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

    Here in Beaverton, OR we use mealpayplus to track meals and pay for their lunches. We can see what they’ve been buying – and while it does seem a little “big brother” there are times that it’s led to some really good conversations. My middle school daughter is at a school now where she has a lot of a la carte options that aren’t healthy and it has really helped to be able to discuss the difference between a treat and a meal. The nice thing is that even if they try to pay for things with cash it is still deposited to their account and I can see what she bought.

    Since I truly believe my own problems with obesity started in middle school when I was allowed free reign to a bunch of junk food that I’d never had – I like being able to have these conversations.

  10. Heather November 14, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    Our school has had an automated System the entire time my 15 year old has been in school. My husband was out of work for over a year, and knowing that a big deal wouldn’t be made of the free lunch our 3 kids got made us feel better- knowing other kids wouldn’t possibly make fun because our kids “checked out” the same way the other kids did.

    We did have an issue wit some other child using one of our girls’ accounts. The cafe staff were asking for last name instead of requiring the child to input a number. Our last name isn’t a very common one, so I guess they felt there would be only one family with that name. We caught it when her account was charged for a tray lunch when she was on a field trip. They were able to figure out which purchases weren’t ours based on the time sh had lunch.

    Parents can put limits on accounts….letting the school know what the parents want the money spent on, which is a great way to prevent all the extras offered in the cafe.

  11. Mitch Johns November 15, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    Mrs. Q,

    Great post.

    In servicing schools all over the country for the last twenty years all of the points you make are valid. Since all public schools compete for state and federal funding poverty is the measuring stick. And while most might think that census numbers would be a logical choice to keep score it is actually the number of students eligible free and reduced for school lunch that is used. Middle and high school students who feel they are being overtly identified with school lunch tickets (rich kids don’t use them) not only stop eating, they tell mom and dad not to even bother filling the paperwork out. No paperwork typically means a decrease in funding for the school. Decrease funding results in increase local taxes or loss of services including teachers
    .
    This lose, lose, lose proposition is best solved by taking cash out of the lunch line. Everybody prepays and charges against the account. Rich kid or poor kid, you can’t tell the difference and talk about a line speed up. Counting $16.85 change back from a twenty dollar bill takes 3-5 seconds. Multiply that times 50 kids and you have three extra minutes to eat lunch. Does not sound like much but twenty minute lunches usually have the kids at the back of the line gulping their food. Hardly healthy.

    Two other huge benefits to a cashless lunchroom are eliminating any possible bullying in the line and the pre-deposited funds can only be used in the lunch room. One dollar in four given as lunch money is spent elsewhere. And checking the use of the funds IMO is not big brotherish…it’s responsible. Inspect what you expect.

  12. JoAnn November 15, 2011 at 8:51 am #

    We also have the automated funds. Cash or check can be sent to the homeroom teacher and they pass it on to the caf, or it can be done online. I can check online what their balances are, and get a brief description of what they got, “entree 1” or “entree 2” or salad option or what they bought a la carte. In first grade we had a problem with my son getting chips because his friends were, and this was a helpful tool to fixing the problem. They have a 6 digit number to memorize, and it stays the same every year, but the lunch ladies are actually really good at remembering the kids. I don’t think we get email alerts when the balance is low, but I do know the lunch lady has told my kids when they get under $5 (and they actually told me once they got home). Similarly, other parents can find out that their obese child is eating an entire lunch and sneaking into the other lunch line to get another entire lunch or eating breakfast at daycare and then again at school. True stories!

  13. Colleen November 15, 2011 at 8:09 pm #

    We’ve had the automated fund system here for at least 10 years, and it’s mostly great—we can’t put more $ in online, I have to send a check.
    Their student ID’s are their lunch cards as well, my oldest son carries his in his wallet, but my little boys are kept on a rotating rack and if he’s eating school lunch, he pulls his out of his slot (they’re color-coded by teacher) and after he goes through the line, they put the cards in a color-coded bin. Someone collects the bins, scans the cards in them and puts them back in the rack for the next day.
    We have the option of checking online to see if they’re eating alacart items and can block them if we wish. A few years ago the account was bleeding money and in checking, we found that Parker was getting breakfast every morning. Um, NO WAY kiddo, eat at home for free and better!!

  14. JGold November 16, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    Another system is PaySchools (at http://www.payschools.com) which can be used for all payments at school, not just lunch.

  15. orderlunches.com November 16, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Thank you for this post! Every point made is exactly what we strive to accomplish with our web-based school lunch ordering program.

    We know it’s important to make sure kids eat a healthy lunch at school and that’s why orderlunches.com lets parents & kids work together to select the meals they want to order on a daily basis – our pre-order online lunch solution ensures parents know EXACTLY what their kids are eating at school. Since meals are ordered ahead of time, we eliminate food waste, long lunch lines and the stigma for free and reduced students. Our reporting suite allows lunch administrators and caterers to know what items are selling well and ensures the proper amount of food is prepared.

    As the leader in the pre-order school lunch market, it’s our mission to help schools and parents better manage their lunch program and help make sure kids are eating healthy food!

  16. -MAARIT- November 17, 2011 at 5:57 am #

    This is news about cameras monitoring school lunches in Texas. The written part mentions only the goal to stop obesity, but in the insert is talked more about how the “after picture” show what is not eaten and then helps to plan or modify meals so that less food is thrown away. Like apple slices are more easily eaten than whole apple.

  17. MemeGRL November 20, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    Another data point–here in suburban Phila. we have an ID number system where each child has an ID number. When s/he punches it in, the name comes up (to prevent issues like the one another commenter mentioned, though I suppose some kids/lunchroom workers might not realize it if the child is coming up with an incorrect but same-gender name consistently) and the computer registers what was purchased.
    I do not put money on there in advance because once you do, it can be spent on anything and alas, my son has a real weak spot for the ice cream (I would too, it’s good stuff from a local dairy) so I give him exactly enough for his milk every day and he still has to punch in the number so it’s registered.
    For kindergarten, the kids have the option of buying milk for the year at the beginning of the year, and I wish I had that option for the older ones, I would sign on in a heartbeat.

    One other “big brother” aspect of our lunchroom (but one I support, really) is that kids are assigned tables at the beginning of the year and they sit with those classmates all year. This cuts down on the social meanness of “you can’t sit here” or “nerd/jock tables” or other nastiness. What I was less thrilled with was the decibel meter; every time it flashed red, the kids lost a minute of recess, which struck me as just the opposite of the good solution (ie–too loud? get going to recess already!) but since my child is one who skips half of what’s packed to get outside ASAP, I understand why that’s probably not feasible.

  18. Mrs J January 9, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    My students have swipers on their school IDs, which they are supposed to wear around the middle school. I like this better than fingerprint IDs and biometrics, which I think are a step too far with the Big Brother stuff.

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