- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — As Garin Hughes picks through his school-lunch burrito and unidentifiable apple-pear dessert, he has a secret.

Hidden beneath the eighth-grader’s right leg is a shrink-wrapped chocolate cookie. That’s for dessert.

In the past, his parents had no clue when he bought a treat at school. Now, thanks to a new school-lunch monitoring system, they can check over the Internet and learn about that secret cookie.

Health officials hope it will increase parents’ involvement in what their children eat at school. It’s a concern because federal health data shows that as much as 30 percent of U.S. children are either overweight or obese.

“My parents do care about what I eat. They try, like, to keep up with it,” said Garin, a 14-year-old student at Marietta Middle School.

Three school districts in the Atlanta area last week became the first in the country to offer the parental-monitoring option of an electronic lunch-payment system called Mealpay.com, created by Horizon Software International LLC of Loganville, Ga.

For two years, the payment system, used by 1,000 school districts in 21 states, has allowed parents to electronically prepay for student lunches. Students type in their identification numbers before the cafeteria cashier rings up their lunch bills each day. The amount then is deducted from the student’s account.

The system initially was designed as a convenient way for parents to make sure their children bought lunch without worrying that the lunch money would get lost, spent on other things or stolen.

However, these days parents increasingly are interested in what their children eat away from home. Requests from concerned parents prompted Horizon Software to develop the online meal-monitoring option.

Under the system, parents can see all of a student’s lunch purchases. Even those paid in nickels and dimes — instead of the prepaid lunch account — are recorded in the system, said Tina Bennett, program director for Mealpay.com.

“A parent could give a child $20, and within two days that money’s gone. This allows them to see if they bought chips,” she said. “What we’re really hoping is to get parents’ involvement, to let them know what’s happening.”

The biggest challenge for many school-lunch programs, though, is “moving things clearly not good for kids out and making the choices more appealing,” said Dr. Douglas Kamerow, a professor of clinical family medicine at Georgetown University and a member of the Institute of Medicine panel that released a report on childhood obesity last fall.

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