Let's Do Lunch, the Easy Way

Mealpay turns buying school lunches into a simple online task.

by / October 7, 2005
The best laid plans of moms and dads can often go awry. That means getting lunches or lunch money to their kids is sometimes overlooked.

A new service called Mealpay makes fumbling for cash and mad dashes to mini marts on the way to school a thing of the past. It also serves as a tool for parents to monitor their children's lunchtime eating and spending habits online.

Cashless Lunches
Parents whose children are in districts that utilize Mealpay can open an account on the company's Web site with a major credit card. Parents can deposit money when they want and for as much as they want, although some schools require a $20 minimum deposit.

Created by Horizon Software, an online point-of-sale service for school districts, Mealpay is a tool for parents, students and the school district to make lunch breaks run smoothly and efficiently.

Eliminating the cash element is an added advantage for officials at Jefferson County School District in Golden, Colo.

"Anytime we don't have to handle cash, or have people handle cash, is a plus," said Shirley Brooke, the district's director of food and nutrition services.

She said parents rave about Mealpay and all it offers, including the automatic payment option. Parents can set up a monthly dollar amount to be withdrawn from their credit cards and that amount can be adjusted at any time.

Watching What Their Kids Eat
Convenient payment is the main feature of the service, but parents also have the ability to track their children's spending habits while they're at school.

"It helps the parent know how much their kids are spending," Brooke said. "We've found parents of the older kids like to know where the money went because the older kids tend to buy lunch for their friends."

Some school districts use a Mealpay option that lets parents see exactly what kids are eating. If main courses are skipped and only desserts are purchased, mom and dad will know.

Parents who want more control over what their children eat may choose from different types of accounts.

The meal account allows students to purchase only one complete plated meal per day at breakfast and/or lunch, and no other item in the cafeteria. The general account allows students to purchase any item in the cafeteria, including a la carte items, side dishes and beverages.

Mealpay's monitoring service is also designed to help combat obesity, a leading cause of illness, through state legislation mandating what types of food can be sold in school cafeterias.

Tina Bennett, director of Mealpay, said obesity is an important issue for parents and educators.

"It's something everyone wants to learn more about," Bennett said. "Obesity-related illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, cost the United States $117 billion a year, and Medicaid and Medicare are picking up half of that expense."

Mealpay is taking its product a bit further to include an educational component called HealthSmart -- a nutrition curriculum for K-12 teachers.

"We know how to feed kids," Bennett said. "Now we want to educate them [about food]."

Although she didn't elaborate much, since the product is still in the research and development phase, Bennett said HealthSmart will teach students how to eat better and incorporate physical education.

"If we do not reverse this trend, our kids will be the first to actually outlive their kids," Bennett said, meaning that life expectancies are dropping so rapidly that parents will begin to outlive their own children.

Filling a Need
Bennett said Mealpay was born out of school districts' need to run their lunchtime operations more efficiently.

"We're handling the money for the schools, and they like how fast they can get students through the lines," Bennett said. "[Cafeteria workers] see the Mealpay card, click a button and that kid is gone."

For further convenience, automatic notifications are sent via e-mail to let parents know if their child's account is running low. Parents with more than one child may set up different profiles using one account. They may pay as late as midnight for their child to have credit the next day on a Mealpay card.

Parents may also deposit extra money to pay for other school-related items such as admission to school dances, athletic fees and yearbooks. Like some other automated payment systems, though, Mealpay charges parents $2 per transaction.

Coming to a School Near You
So far, only 76 school districts in 24 states use the service. Bennett said her company is in its infancy with this program, and plenty of school districts in the United States are in line for Mealpay service.

"I can't tell you exactly how many installations we have on order, but it's 100 or more," Bennett said. "We've really just started heavily pushing the service."

Bennett said the percentage of students using Mealpay runs between 5 percent and 50 percent, depending on the school district.

Bennett considers that an impressive number, especially compared to three years ago when the company first went online with Georgia's Gwinnett County School District, and the user rate was 1 percent.

Brooke doesn't know what percentage of Jefferson County School District's students uses Mealpay, but she said $1.5 million was transacted during the last school year.

"The year before that, when we first began using Mealpay, our sales were $1 million, so it's growing," Brooke said.

While Mealpay will begin charging schools a flat rate in the coming months, districts currently pay 5.75 percent of the transacted funds to use the service, a fee Brooke calls worthwhile.

"If you consider the amount of time it takes to handle $1.5 million, the fee is a legitimate expense," Brooke said. "Especially if you compare what it would cost otherwise."
Jana Saastad Contributing Writer