School Cafeterias Embrace Technology for Electronic, Online Payments

Technology isn’t just taking over the classroom — in many schools, it’s also changing the way the cafeteria operates.

School cafeterias are embracing new electronic payments systems to streamline operations. Recently, the City of Chicago became one of the largest school districts to sign up for electronic payments, joining public schools in New York City; Fairfax County, Va.; Denver; and San Antonio, and others., Catherine Dunn writes in CNN Money.

Electronic payment systems allow students to make payment at school cafeterias by using a PIN or an ID card linked to an online account, where parents can choose to automatically refill low balances, set spending controls, and review what food their kids purchased that same day.

The new system will be operation in Chicago in 2014.

For parents and cafeteria managers in public school districts throughout the U.S., this type of payment service is a boon of convenience. For Heartland Payment Systems, the purveyor of point of sales systems, nutrition-related software, and online payment services in about 29,000 of the country’s 100,000 schools, lunch money is helping drive between $45 and $55 million in annual sales at the $2 billion (revenues) company.

Heartland Payment Systems made a series of acquisitions in last two years. Now the company owns two similar platforms — MyLunchMoney.com and MySchoolBucks.com — which allow parents to pay for and monitor lunch expenditures electronically. They can also be used to pay for things like books, field trips, and other school activities.

In a bidding round to provide a reliable payment system for Chicago’s 600 or so schools, Heartland beat five other competing bidders largely by offering a cloud-based software. Chicago schools distribute 74 million meals a year, and until now, they were using a payment system of cash, meal tickets, and sales totals entered on Excel spreadsheets.

“It’s a very manual system, it’s very cumbersome, and it’s fraught with potential for error,” says Leslie Fowler, executive director of nutrition support services for Chicago Public Schools. She estimates that the district loses $1.5 million per year in uncollected meal charges. Fowler expects that the new point of sales terminals and related technology will make quite a difference. “Being able to track who ate, what they ate, and when they ate — unequivocally — will help close the gaps,” she said.

Michael Lawler, Heartland’s president for strategic markets, who oversees the company’s school solutions group, believes that the company’s payment system provides parents a better way to pay

Heartland’s strategy is focused on moms and dads. Once the company has a foothold in a school system, executives believe they can appeal to more and more parents simply by providing a better way to pay for lunch and more and more parents would adopt it because of the ease of use.

A school system of around 61,000 students in Volusia County, Florida, became a Heartland client when the company bought up an IT provider called School-Link Technologies. In 2008, the central Florida school district first piloted MyLunchMoney.com.

Parents who sign up for the optional service pay a fee — typically $1.95 — each time they put money on the account. Even if parents choose not to buy meals using MyLunchMoney, they can still use the site to view their child’s purchases for free.

Currently, more than 10,600 Volusia users are registered with the service, and more than 7,400 use it to make payments, including Valerie Hansen, coordinator in the school system’s nutrition department, and a mother of two.School Cafeterias Embrace Electronic Payment System

Tuesday
10 1, 2013
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