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Eliminating Lunch Money Messes

Probably every day in every classroom, a teacher hears, "I lost/forgot/spent my lunch money," sparking phone calls home, IOUs, or food collections. Pre-paid lunch programs can end the problems of missing money, and save parent and teacher time. Included: Descriptions of pre-paid lunch programs.

"I forgot my lunch money."

Few school personnel have escaped hearing that announcement, whether they work at the beginning or at the end of the K-12 spectrum.

To prevent money from slipping out of little or not-so little hands, and to avoid the problems that missing lunch money spawns -- hungry/cranky children, staff becoming lending agents, and searches for stale snack food -- some schools are adopting pre-payment systems for their lunch programs.


Although prepayment programs have existed for a while, some companies now offer online systems that allow parents to use credit or debit cards to deposit money in an account for their children. Students then use an identification card or a pin number when they pass through the cafeteria line, and the accounts are debited for their purchases.

"This immediately had a positive effect," said Rita Greene, director of the child nutrition program for Cabarrus County Schools in Concord, North Carolina. "Now the money goes straight into the account; the chance for error is nil. No one has to handle any money."

To facilitate the system in Cabarrus County, all students were assigned identification numbers that they will use for their entire school careers. Students either swipe their identification cards or punch in their number when they pass through the lunch line. The first card is free, but students are charged if they need a replacement.

Problems with students forgetting their ID numbers have been relatively few. "You would be surprised," Greene said. "The little ones do better than the older ones. But the older ones have more to think about."

About 10 percent of the parents in the district's 28 schools use the online system, Greene said. Parents are charged $1.50 for each transaction, but they can pay for a week or for the whole year at a time, and they can deposit money for multiple children during a single transaction. Students who do not pre-pay still are able to pay cash for their lunches.


Besides eliminating the problem of children fumbling through their pockets for change or losing their money on the playground, the system also protects the privacy of youngsters receiving free-and reduced-price lunches. "The pre-pay system is a wonderful tool for not identifying the paying status of children," Greene told Education World. Almost 30 percent of the district's students qualify for free-and reduced-price lunches.

Cabarrus County Schools use an online program provided by Education Management Systems, Inc., of Wilmington, North Carolina. That program replaced another pre-pay system that the county had used since 1995, which required parents to write a check for each child, put account numbers on each check, seal them in individual envelopes, and send them to school by not-always-reliable student couriers. "Sometimes, it was confusing as to where the money went," said Greene.

Schools in Guilford County, North Carolina, use the same online system, and school personnel there are pleased as well. After piloting the program in November 2003, the district launched it in all 98 schools in January 2004, said Janet Chapman, program director of school nutrition services.

"We adopted it for the ease," Chapman told Education World. "We are trying to make things smoother. Under the old system, we had kids who forgot their checks. The new system is easier for parents too. It seems to be working well for us."

The online system also allows parents to track how much their children spend in the cafeteria and what they buy. School personnel can print a transaction report that shows how many 50-cent snacks a child purchased, so parents can see if their children are lunching primarily on pretzels and cookies.

The company plans to add a feature that will allow school staff to notify parents when the account balance gets down to $5, so parents can add money online, using a credit or debit card, Greene added

"I definitely would recommend the program to other districts," she said.


Even when parents do not pay online, other forms of pre-payment still can save cafeteria staff members and parents time and aggravation, as well as provide accountability and protect student privacy.

Linda Hoel, the food service director for the Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington, said her district piloted a pre-pay program in 2001-02 and now 25 out of 30 schools use it. Instead of paying online, parents deposit money in a student's lunch account by sending in a check, or calling the school and charging the payment to a credit card. Students use activity cards to pay in the cafeteria, and money is deducted from their accounts. Any money left in the accounts at the end of the school year rolls over to the next year and/or the next school, she added. "It's easier to process a credit card. We are looking to speed up things in the cafeteria," Hoel said.

"We were back in the Dark Ages," Hoel told Education World. "This protects the confidentiality of students receiving free-and reduced-price lunches." (About 32 percent of Northshore students receive free-or reduced lunches.)

"The feedback is wonderful," Holt added. "It's always reassuring when you can tell parents where their money is spent. It's a good way to know where money is going, and if it's going to pretzels and baked chips."