Thursday, February 08, 2007

Changing Times In The School Lunch Line

In an effort to improve lunchline efficiency, some elementary schools in Maryland's Frederick County are resorting to so-called modern methods that would befuddle many adults:
Some can’t find their money, some forget their pin codes and others don’t remember how to say in English what they want for lunch.

Whatever the reason, many Frederick County elementary school students do not move through their lunch lines fast enough, which leaves them with less time to eat, according to food services employees.

Some elementary schools are trying out a new way to speed up the process. Students at Hillcrest, Wolfsville, Middletown, Walkersville and a few other elementary schools can now pay for lunch as soon as they arrive at school in the morning instead of waiting until lunch time.

The idea is to make sure students have ‘‘appropriate time to eat, relax and socialize,” as mandated by Frederick County Public Schools’ wellness policy.

‘‘If this helps, that will be great,” said Cheri Dattoli, food service officer for the school system. ‘‘If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.”

Most concerns about the lack of adequate time for lunch were raised by the wellness policy, which was adopted by the Board of Education in August.

In response to those concerns, within the last several months, food service managers across the county have been asked to time lunch lines at their school cafeterias, Dattoli said.

According to preliminary data, high schools’ and middle schools’ cafeteria lines tend to meet the national average of serving nine students per minute. But elementary schools tend to fall behind, Dattoli said.

While she would not say which schools had the fastest and the slowest lunch lines, Dattoli said that information will be in a report, which is now being put together by food service employees. The report should help the county food services identify the reasons lunch lines are slow.

One factor may be the more complex computer system, which was introduced to elementary school cafeterias this year.

The system has been crashing and running slow since its installation and it was just updated in the beginning of February, Dattoli said.

‘‘Everybody saw a speed up in the line after that,” she said.

The system allows cafeterias to keep track of every student’s individual account and payments. The county middle and high schools have been using the same system for several years.

Students and parents can put money in each account electronically, through a bank or a credit card transfer or by bringing cash to school. When students get enrolled at school, they receive a three- to five-digit personal identification code, which allows them to access their account.

That, however, creates a number of problems for the elementary school students, who are not used to dealing with cash and remembering codes.

Robin Trout, mother of a first-grader at Hillcrest Elementary, tried giving her son a plastic bag with money for lunch. For about a week he kept returning the money home, untouched. Eventually Trout started coming to the school with him just to make sure the money made it to the account.

‘‘I come twice a week, that way I can keep an accurate account,” she said. ‘‘I don’t want him to be in the red.”

In some schools, language barriers are also a challenge, said Sandy Shankle, food service manager of seven Frederick schools, including Hillcrest Elementary.

‘‘Some kids don’t know their name, some kids don’t speak English,” she said. ‘‘It is not happening everywhere. The bigger ones can do it, the little ones can’t.”

The new morning payment routine could help simplify the process at schools with many non-English speakers and a large percentage of students who eat lunch at school, Shankle said.

Hillcrest Elementary has been offering the morning payment option since Jan. 30. Although few students and parents take advantage of it, their numbers have been growing, Shankle said.

Of the 679 students enrolled in programs at Hillcrest Elementary, 525 eat during one of the six lunch shifts at the school. That is why the school is ready to use every available way to calm down the hectic lunch routine.
I remember when I was a young KidWonk, a hot school lunch (including milk) sold for only 25 cents, while the purchase of a half-pint of milk cost only a dime.

Each day, we would give our lunch money to the teacher, who would dispense tickets that we, in turn, would give to our school's Cafeteria Lady.

It was a simpler, more wholesome time
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