Schools’ prepaid-meal
system hits a few snags

More Hawaii schools are switching to prepaid computerized meal-ticket systems this year and parents need to stay abreast of their school's policy to avoid cafeteria complications, Department of Education officials say.

As many as 20 public schools have installed or plan to install computerized prepaid systems for this school year, said Gene Kaneshiro, the department's food services manager.

To protect students from embarrassment, the federal government has been pressuring states to find ways of shielding the confidentiality of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches due to low household income.

But the transition doesn't always go smoothly.

Kanoelani Elementary School parent Karen James said several children who tried to buy school breakfast with cash on Friday -- the first day of classes at the Waipio campus -- were denied a meal by school staff because they hadn't signed up for the school's new computerized system.

"It was the first day of school and the kids showed up all excited but they were basically told, 'Sorry. Next!'" said James, who ended up buying the breakfasts of 10 other students on the meal cards of her two children.

She said schools that switch should have contingency plans in place in case of miscommunication and to ensure a meal for kids who might not yet be signed up for the new systems.

Kaneshiro said such details are up to individual schools to work out and communicate to families. However, cash transactions should no longer be allowed because they "defeat the whole purpose of preserving the privacy of students," he said.

About half of the state's 285 public schools have some sort of prepaid computerized system, Kaneshiro said. The others use various debit-card arrangements or manual systems such as tickets.

The federal government reimburses public schools for a portion of the cost of providing each student meal. For lower-income students, the meal may be completely subsidized.

At Aiea Elementary, where nearly 90 percent of the student body qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, student privacy is protected even when students are prepaying for a set of meal tickets, said Principal Arthur Kaneshiro.

Payment lines resemble those at banks, where people in line stand back some distance from the counter until called forward for their turn.

However, students who forget their meal tickets will be advanced a new one for the day.

"We wouldn't turn a kid away. We find a way to get them fed," Kaneshiro said.

The federal government allows schools to claim reimbursement on just one breakfast and one lunch per student per day, and the computerized systems are aimed partly at preventing students from purchasing more than that.

State Department of Education

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