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Parents go online to see where the lunch money goes

August 29, 2008 |  2:25 pm

Lunch

Lunch money, like your keys and your grandmother’s bifocals, is one of those things that suddenly disappears, leaving you with no idea where it went.

As many kids head back to school next week, parents will again ask the question they have pondered for ages: What happens to said lunch money? Bullies? Pockets full of holes? Children who want too many Twinkies? Tighter household budgets are making it even more pressing to find the answer.

But at last, modern technology has solved the quandary. A program called MealpayPlus, from Horizon Software International of Duluth, Ga., lets parents track what their kids are buying with their lunch money and see exactly what they're eating. Parents can also control lunch purchases, nixing the junk food or the bug juice. More than 250 school districts in the nation use the system, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, which recently selected Horizon to provide its food service technology.

"If parents don’t understand how their student goes through $30 in 3 days, they can view their students’ current account balance," said Ashley Steele, senior product coordinator for MealpayPlus.

Kids pay for their lunches with MealpayPlus in different ways, depending on the school district. Some will get a scan card. Others get a PIN. Some school districts will take images of students' fingerprints ...

... using biometrics and thus keep track of students' lunch spending that way.

Busy parents can go online and add money to their childrens' account. They can also flag foods their kids are allergic to and elect whether their child can buy only meals or stuff not included in the meal plan (such as snacks).

The Hacienda La Puente Unified School District in the San Gabriel Valley has used the service for a few years. Geri Dee, director of food services, said it has come in handy. For one, it cuts down on lines. For another, parents can make sure their kids are eating healthily. The service is also useful for that all-too-common situation when kids try to buy milk with $100 bills.

"We have students, especially on the Hacienda Heights side, that will come in with a $100 bill to prepay for lunches," she said. "Parents like to know what their kids are eating with that."

The service also makes buying lunch less embarrassing for kids getting reduced-price meals, said Vera Iosua, an office manager at Hacienda La Puente USD. Last year she signed up her children, Chelsea, 16, and Howard, now 18, for MealpayPlus. Her kids only had to enter their PINs to pay for lunch, rather than fork over cash, which meant it was harder for other kids to tell that they were paying less for their meals.

It also meant -- she now knows -- that her son ate a lot of pizza for lunch. Sometimes he had a salad. It was a relief for Iosua to see that because she says her kids love to eat candy and chips, even for lunch. "I didn't want to give them money and have them use it on vending machines," she said. "I wanted them to buy lunch and have well-balanced meals."

-- Alana Semuels

Photo by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

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