Swipe your card, get a meal 

Schoolchildren in The City are getting their own form of a debit card to purchase cafeteria food, and the new system will allow parents to track what their kids are eating and should help the cash-strapped school district gain more funding from the federal government for its food needs.

The technology being implemented in all public schools this year and next allows students to swipe a card or enter a five-digit PIN when purchasing meals instead of paying with cash, according to the San Francisco Unified School District.

Parents can prepay for meals on a weekly, monthly or one-time basis using their bank routing number, credit card or debit card, and they can enter payments into an online account that can track a pupil’s history of purchases, along with the type of meals they ordered, said Nancy Waymack, the district’s director of policy and operations.

“If for some reason their child didn’t eat lunch that day, [parents] will know it,” she said.

Among its benefits, the cashless system helps to speed up food lines — which will hopefully lure more students into eating at school cafeterias — and saves on administrative costs, Waymack said.

The technology has been installed in all middle and high schools and a few elementary schools, she said. The district hopes all schools will be operating on the system next school year.

The district is spending $1.5 million over two years to implement the system. The funds come from a parcel tax passed in 2008.

Along with reduced administrative costs, the automated system can help the district recoup a larger reimbursement of federal funds by better tracking how many meals the district serves, Waymack said. The district receives funding for meals it serves, and an automated system is less prone to documenting errors, she said.

The prepayment system is “integral to SFUSD achieving its goals in improving the nutrition its students receive,” said Colleen Kavanagh, executive director of the Campaign for Better Nutrition.

“Less money spent on counting and banking cash [they pay Wells Fargo fees to collect and process the cash] leaves more funds to spend on better meals,” Kavanagh said.

Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh — a San Francisco State University professor who authored a study on dietary policies that was published in a health journal Tuesday — said the system would be a great way for researchers to learn more about food habits that cause obesity.

In many cases, “people don’t remember what they ate the day before,” she said.

Sanchez-Vaznaugh has a kindergartner in the district. She said she usually packs lunches from home and, at her daughter’s request, purchases school meals once in a while. She said she would allow her daughter to eat more at the school cafeteria with this system in place, particularly since she can monitor what her daughter is eating.

The school lunch menus vary from day to day and provide the option of up to two entrees, snacks and, at some schools, a salad bar. Parents also will be able to see if their students purchased more limited breakfast and after-school snack selections.


Nourishing schoolchildren

Breakdown of San Francisco Unified School District students who received free or reduced-priced lunches during the 2008-09 school year:

55,272 Total student enrollment
21,951 (39.7 percent) Students who receive free lunches
8,059 (14.6 percent) Students who receive reduced-price lunches

Source: SFUSD

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