By now many principals, superintendents, administrators and K-12 food service operators have heard of school lunch biometrics, or the use of high tech devices such as fingerprint
readers, to recognize students and allow for the automated payment and accounting of school lunch purchases.
Once the province of the FBI and criminal investigators, fingerprint technology is now regularly being harnessed at K-12 schools around the nation. Not for Orwellian motives such
as surveillance, identification or tracking, but for school lunches and breakfasts. Examples cited in this report include the Penn Cambria and Wilson School Districts in Pennsylvania;
JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, California; and Fairfield School District of Fairfield, Texas. Yet this is only a small sampling of the hundreds of school
districts across the United States that are currently implementing such systems.
Using fingerprint ID technology, foodservice operators are not only speeding lunch lines and simplifying payment, but also virtually eliminating lunch fraud, bullying, and reversing
the trend of declining reimbursement for programs such as the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Moreover, because biometric systems automate the payment and accounting
of school lunches, they eliminate tedious backend administrative chores such as cash, ticket, or paper-based handling, accounting, reconciling, and oversight.
At first blush, fingerprinting students as a means to improve the efficiency and speed of school lunch lines often carries the “baggage” of a host of misconceptions about the technology
– not to mention the privacy implications. For school district personnel, these preconceptions and considerations may lead to an initial hesitation to investigate the benefits
of such systems. Therefore, this special report attempts to clear up the myths from the hype, and to provide an accurate picture of the technology and its potential benefits. This
special report provides information and answers to the following questions:
• A layman’s explanation of biometric technology and privacy issues
• How parents can use such systems to monitor and control where their child’s lunch money is being spent
SECTION I: Biometric Technology and Privacy Issues
To understand the necessity for a biometric solution, it is important to first understand
the traditional (cash, lunch tickets) or more high tech alternatives used to access personal
accounts into which parents have deposited money for lunches (PIN numbers,
magnetic swipe cards). Although these options are acceptable and in widespread
use today, there is one significant drawback common to all not found in biometric
solutions: namely, with a fingerprint system you can’t lose your identification (finger),
but kids being kids – they can and will lose or forget just about anything else.
The problem PIN numbers is that they can be easily forgotten, particularly with
younger children, forcing school lunchroom staffers to look them up while the lunch
line comes to a halt. Children have also been known to give the number to a friend,
which in the end causes parents to be billed for extra food they know their children
didn’t purchase. This can stimulate angry calls from parents insistent on getting billings
corrected. “Cards with easily-forgotten personal identification numbers (PINs)
also pose problems and are prone to fraud when the PIN codes are overheard and
misused by other students,” explains Joe Geisweidt, Food Service Director of Penn
Cambria School District.
Magnetic Swipe Cards
Although convenient, magnetic-stripped cards are frequently lost, stolen, destroyed,
or misused in alarming numbers. In fact, over 70% of students will typically need to
have their swipe cards replaced each year, on average, at considerable expense.
Magnetic swipe cards can also be slipped to friends so they can buy lunch or stolen
Biometric Systems and Privacy Issues
In most school lunch biometric systems, students place a forefinger on a small fingerprint
reader by the register. In seconds, the system translates the electronic print
into a mathematical pattern, discards the fingerprint image, and matches the pattern
to the student’s meal account information. Food Service Solutions (FSS) biometric
software, for example, plots 27 points on a grid that correspond with the fingerprint’s
ridges to achieve positive identification, but saves no actual fingerprint image. Both
parents and students can rest assured that the fingerprint images cannot be used by
law enforcement for identification purposes. When school lunch biometric systems
are numerically- based and discard the actual fingerprint image, they cannot be used
for any purpose other than recognizing a student within a registered group of students.
Since there’s no stored fingerprint image, the data is useless to law enforcement,
which requires actual fingerprint images. As there’s no way for any fingerprint
or computer expert to extract a record and reconstruct a person’s fingerprint image
from purely numerical data, privacy is protected. Fingerprinting is voluntary and
typically done when the student enters the school system along with enrollment paperwork.
Kids are fingerprinted just once, and the mathematical algorithm produced
stays with them until they graduate. Those declining fingerprint IDs can continue to
use cash or other methods.
SECTION II: Controlling Where the Money is Spent
For parents everywhere, it’s been a persistent and nagging problem: A child, provided
with lunch money, bypasses the lunch line entirely and spends that money at
the corner store on candy and soda. Or, worse, has that money stolen by a bully and
is forced to go hungry. A parent providing hard cash to a child can do nothing but
hope and worry, having no control over what their child does with that money or what
happens to it before it is properly spent on a nutritional lunch. Because parents can
set up a lunch account linked to a biometric system for their child’s use, they can not
only be sure their child has enough money for lunch each day, but also can monitor
what their kids are buying. “Whether standard school lunch or a la carte, parents can
easily keep track of their children’s lunch purchases in the monthly billing statements
mailed to them,” says Penn Cambria’s Food Service Director Joe Geisweidt. “That
ensures that lunch money is spent for its intended use, and also puts an end to any
predatory lunch money bullying.” “The parents have said that it’s really great to simply
deposit the money and know it’s there,” says Mike Tubbs, IT Manager at JSerra
Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, California. “The kids don’t have to take
money to school, and parents can simply know their children will be buying lunch
every day.” The school utilizes a biometric system developed especially for schools
by Food Service Solutions (FSS), and has two point-of-sale readers set up in the
school’s cafeteria. JSerra’s previous purchasing system, based on a child’s student
number, created many problems. For example, a student would provide their number
to a friend who would pay the student for the food purchased, and the student would
simply pocket the money. Or, other students would purchase with another student’s
Because of its loopholes, the old system made it very difficult for the school to
provide accurate accounting to parents, and parents, seeing the odd or additional
purchases made on their childrens’ accounts, would be making daily complaints.
“Any complaints now are few and far between,” Tubbs says. Another successful
implementation of biometrics is in three schools in the Fairfield School District of Fairfield,
Texas. “The majority of parents think it’s great,” says Crystal Thill, Food Service
Director for the district. “They know that their money is going for their child, instead
of somebody else using their account.” “Before we got this system, there were quite
a bit of parents calling in saying, ‘my child didn’t purchase that,’” Thill continues.
“Of course, we had no way of telling whether their child purchased it or not, and
we would have to delete the charge. Now it’s of course a given that their child did
purchase items.” According to Thill, the system has also made a great difference with
the younger students at the Fairfield District’s elementary school—they’re not now
having to remember a number. “With the PIN numbers, we would have to manually
pull them up, which is a lot more time consuming.”
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