Card swipe system brings equity to SFUSD lunches

Good piece in BeyondChron today on the improvements our “point-of-sale” (POS) card swipe system will bring to school lunches at the middle- and high-school levels:

It is heartening to see that even in the face of one of the largest budget disasters in recent memory, facing a two year deficit of $113 million, the SFUSD is now piloting a new lunch setup – called the Super Choice Menu – aimed at banishing the stigma and removing the barriers keeping all students from having all choices available to them.
The Super Choice Menu offers several lunch options in the cafeteria, and half a dozen other choices in the former snack bar, but all choices are complete meals, not snacks, and all of them are available to all students. Standing in one lunch line or the other is no longer an indicator of a student’s financial situation – anyone can go to any line and get lunch.

In other words, the POS system makes it possible to have paid- and free/reduced lunch students standing in the same line, and making the same lunch choices. It’s hard to overstate the humiliation (from a middle-scholer’s perspective)  of having to stand in the free/reduced lunch line while your friends stand in the paid line. Many would rather skip lunch and go hungry rather than reveal their status. The POS system represents a huge improvement that will also allow us to offer better food choices to every student.

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7 responses to “Card swipe system brings equity to SFUSD lunches

  1. No, the “snack line” does not require cash with a POS system – that would defeat the purpose of eliminating cash transactions, speeding the line, and removing any obvious indicators of who is on paying status and who receives free meals. As “meal pay plus” (the official name for the online payment system) is activated at every school, and the Super Choice Menu, which makes all meal choices available in all lunch lines, gets rolled out to every middle and high school, there will be no more cash sales.

    As for requiring students to show ID in addition to their swipe card, not only would this additional requirement further slow the line, but you would also probably be surprised at the number of students who simply cannot remember to bring their ID card with them to school each day. This is why the POS also has a feature which allows a student to key in their PIN number rather than swipe their card – because during pilot testing of a different POS system two years ago, too many students were getting to the head of the line and then announcing they had forgotten their ID card, or lost it, or the dog ate it….

    Finally, selling punch cards for cash at each school site would still mean cash handling responsibilities, and the associated costs, for the student nutrition department.

    I don’t expect you to change your feelings that we as a society tend to rely on technology too much; I often feel that way myself. However, the POS is standard in just about every school system in the country now, because it really does eliminate problems and offer advantages. In fact, when interviewing candidates for the SNS director position several years ago, all of the candidates were aghast that SFUSD did not already have such a system in place.

  2. First, I am in IT so I fully understand the benefit of POS.

    However, some of the benefits you quoted are no better with POS than punch cards.

    For example, with punch cards, the lunch line doesn’t require cash either – so the speed to go through the lunch line is no different between POS and punch cards. The additional snack line still requires cash with either system.

    Punch cards can have student’s ID number printed on it, and requires the student to show student ID to prevent the card being sold or traded – a little more work than POS cards with student photos on it but it is not a big deal.

    Centralized inventory control is the only thing which I see the POS system offers over a punch card system. The punch card/coupon can be color coded to help to some extend, but will never be as accurate as a centralized POS. However, I am just wondering if the benefit justify the cost.

    Again, I am not against the POS system. I just think we as a society over-emphasize technologies.

  3. Rachel asked me, as the author of the original article from Beyond Chron, to respond to John. There are many other advantages to having a POS system beyond just the paying for lunch. For example, it is intended to eliminate cash handing entirely, and the associated costs of taking in large amounts of cash. Believe it or not, banks charge a fee for “excessive” deposits of cash (with about 100 sites taking in cash daily, that is a lot of deposits); there is also the cost of the time the employee at each site has to spend each day counting the cash received and preparing the bank deposit; plus the cost of the courier to pick up all of the deposits at the approx. 100 school sites and take them to the bank each day. Of course, when dealing with cash, there is always the risk some of it might disappear; the POS eliminates that risk too. Parents charge up their child’s card online, or they can pay in advance by check or money order, but use of cash is discouraged. Eliminating cash from the equation makes it easier for parents too – just ask any harried parent with several kids wanting to eat school lunch, trying to scrounge around for enough $1 bills to give $2 to each child as they are rushing off to school in the morning.

    The POS also allows the central student nutrition office to track the number of meals each school site is serving each day, which will allow for all ordering to be done from one central location. At present, each caf manager keeps track of how many meals she served each day on little index cards; they use these cards to estimate how many meals to order the next time that entrée is being featured, but it is an imperfect system (and the central office has no idea how many meals each site might be ordering, or why). There is no good way to keep track of inventory, or for central office to see if the number of meals ordered is close to the number ultimately served. Central office ordering for all sites will cut down on meals wasted when a site orders too many (or runs out because not enough were ordered.)

    USDA regulations (which govern the meal program) require that the caf manager who checks the students out at the end of the lunch line must confirm the eligibility of students who are receiving free or reduced price meals. This could not be done using coupons or punch cards; while it might be possible to verify that the student receiving the coupon or punch card was eligible, there would be nothing to prevent that child from trading away his lunch coupon (or, for the more enterprising, selling it) to a student not qualified for free lunch. The use of the POS (which brings up a picture of each student and their eligibility status as they swipe their card) ensures that there is accountability for every meal served at government expense. We may not like these USDA regs, they may seem burdensome and stupid (and many of them are!) but USDA pays for the program and they get to set the rules.

    I am not always a huge fan of technology, but in this case, I am a huge supporter of the POS.

  4. Do we rely on high tech too much?

    A very simple and cheap way to solve the same problem without high tech POS system (which can be costly):

    Ask the parents to buy lunch coupons. Those on free or reduced lunch will get them for free or reduced price. Others will pay full price. Then the student only need to hand over the coupon at lunch. Problem solve and your only cost is the printing cost.

    You can have other variations too – for example, sell plastic card (credit card size) for full/reduced price or free. When the student takes a lunch, the cashier punches a hole on the card. A card should be enough for 20 to 30 lunches.

    In the current budget situation, wouldn’t these alternatives be easier to implement and much cheaper?

  5. Hi Thalia – one of the district proposals is to offer four furlough days for each of the next two years and take class size off the table; this would save about 75 elementary teachers, I’ve been told.

  6. It’s not all bad news, is it? This a welcome enhancement!

  7. this is a question for Rachel,and also in response to Bernal dad. Our staff at DFES is young and energetic and pretty much a mirror of that of El Dorado’s,and our community is about to be decimated as well.the big difference of course is that there is an outside chance we could raise the money that was cut from our school, but were told that we could not directly save members of our staff,that again teachers with seniority would be moved in,which really doesn’t motivate people to fundraise. We really want OUR teachers. Also I would like to know if it is really true that 2 more furlough days across the board would save the teachers from getting the ax.