The food service accounting system in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 4 in Cope, S.C., had issues: It didn't shelter low-income students from the stigma of being labeled "poor." Despite assurances of confidentiality, information on who was receiving free and reducedprice lunches was leaking out. Many students urged their parents not to register them for free and reduced-price lunch, or they skipped the meal altogether.
The system was also inefficient for the district. Each student had a card with an account number; older students kept their cards while younger ones had them handed out and collected from them each day. Children would hand their cards to the cafeteria cashier, who would manually type in each account number. At the end of the day, staff printed out a long receipt of balances.
The district also realized that by not having an accurate count of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, it was forfeiting federal dollars.
District administrators were considering an upgrade to the food service accounting system to address these problems when the superintendent at the time read about biometrics. Intrigued by the technology, which links a person's computer record to a distinguishable physical feature such as a fingerprint or a retina, he urged planners to include biometric systems in their evaluation of food service accounting systems. The district eventually chose to go with a biometric system from Food Service Solutions. The system was put in place for the school year 2001-2002.
The Orangeburg district's biometric system scans students' fingers for identification, but this does not mean that students are "fingerprinted." "We do not store a fingerprint image," says Galen Reigh, senior developer with Food Service Solutions. "The system records 22 points on a person's finger, and what is stored is mathematical-it's a sequence of numbers."
With biometrics, there are no cards for students to keep (or lose), cashiers don't have to manually type in an account number with every purchase, and balances for individual students are calculated on the spot. Moreover, security is much tighter, so students from low-income families don't fear being stigmatized.
Mitch Johns, president and CEO of Food Service Solutions, explains how the stigma can play out in districts. "In a district where 40 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals," he says, "you might find that 38 percent of elementary school students are registered, 30 percent of middle school students are registered, and 22 percent of high school students are registered." It doesn't take a CEO, or a school administrator, to appreciate the cost to students and to districts, and those with the highest percentages of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, says Johns, can benefit the most. The Orangeburg district, for instance, has enjoyed a 5-percent-a-year increase in federal funding since 2003.
No Lunch Left Behind
Angela Robinson, food service bookkeeper for the district, is impressed by how thoroughly the new system accounts for all students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. "Parents will sometimes forget to register one or more of their children," she explains. "Or sometimes an older child in a family will be sensitive to the stigma and will ask not to be included when parents register." The software will search for these children and identify them as being eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.
In addition, if a student who was eligible for free or reduced-price lunches the previous year has yet to register, the software will identify that student so that officials can send a letter to the parent asking for clarification. In general, the technology is designed to identify inconsistencies and other problems that may impede a district's ability to receive subsidies.
Don Parker-Burgard is copy editor for District Administration.