Santa Barbara News Press

Plan to Fingerprint Students Buying Cafeteria Meals

A new lunchtime procedure in the Hope School District requiring kids to be fingerprinted every time they buy food has some parents raising concerns about privacy rights and sanitary health.

The practice, set to begin sometime this month, will have every student in the three upper State Street-area schools pressing an index finger to a scanner before he or she pays for cafeteria food.

The scan will call up the student’s name and student ID, his or her teacher’s name, and how much the student owes for lunch. The amounts vary, because some students qualify for government assistance.

Two weeks ago, the district office sent a letter to parents informing them of the pending change at Monte Vista, Vieja Valley and Hope elementary schools.

“It raises sanitary issues, privacy issues — it is kind of Orwellian,” said Tina Dabby, a parent of two at Monte Vista Elementary, who added that she is reserving judgment until learning more. But so far, “it just sounds kind of creepy.”

School administrators say one purpose of the scanner is to stream kids through the line more quickly — not unlike the computer touch-screens at airports that dispense boarding passes. They also say that having kids touch the computer mouse-sized scanners will allow schools to keep tighter tabs on the cafeteria budget.

It is the latest example of how school cafeterias, characterized in popular imagination by kindly ladies who take the money and serve the helpings, are becoming not only more nutrition-conscious, but also technologically wired.

In the Santa Barbara School Districts, for instance, students already punch into a keypad a six-digit number, which calls up each child’s name, photo and whether he or she qualifies for a free or reduced-price meal.

Santa Barbara’s system also calls up any food-related medical problems, such as an allergy to peanuts — which can be deadly — or being unable to process lactose.

“So when the (cafeteria employee) who’s sitting (at the computer) sees a student is lactose intolerant, they will say, ‘Uh, you need to put that milk back,’ ” said Frank Lihn, food services director in Santa Barbara’s schools.

By law, he said, any information on the screen must stay between the student and the person at the computer.

But “nutrition services personnel are held accountable for a lot of information,” he said. “It just makes sense from a manpower standpoint that we computerize as much as possible.”

In the Hope district, though, some parents seem to prefer the old-fashioned method: a lunch lady equipped with a pencil and paper.

“The children are going to have germs on their hands, then touch the finger pad, then go eat right away,” said Teri Swanson, a parent at Monte Vista Elementary. “I wouldn’t say I’m a germophobic parent or anything, but I know children are going to get sick, and it can spread rampant in schools. This is going to make it that much worse.”

Hope schools Superintendent Gerrie Fausett said parents need not worry about the germs.

Before touching the scanner, she said, students will be required to stick their hands beneath an automated hand sanitizer, which will spray out a poof of cleaning agent.

“There are germs in classrooms, there are germs in homes, there are germs on doorknobs,” Ms. Fausett said. The scanner, she said, is a “very small little pad.

“I don’t think that it is a dangerous situation.”

Joel Rothman, a UCSB professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, agrees.

“Even if their hands aren’t sanitized, I would think the number of germs that are floating around between them would far exceed anything they’d experience through this procedure,” he said.

He added that the trillions and trillions of bacterial organisms in and on our bodies actually exceeds the number of human cells.

“I would never say there is no chance a disease could be transmitted that way, but of all the other things kids are exposed to, I would think that it is almost insignificant,” he said.

Not all parent complaints center on germs and privacy. Ann Pizzinat, a parent at Vieja Valley Elementary, has a beef with the sanitizer.

“That stuff is actually my biggest concern,” she said.

Ms. Pizzinat said she has written a letter to the superintendent asking that her children be exempted from the process.

“I don’t want that gross stuff on their hands,” she said. “It just has a lot of alcohol, and anti-bacteria.”

She worries that the smell could spoil their appetites.

“I would rather they went to the bathroom and use soap and water.”

The total cost of the new equipment is about $3,000 — or $1,000 per school, Ms. Fausett said. It will not replace anyone’s job, she added; it will simply streamline it.

The Hope school board did not formally vote for the new procedure but gave tacit approval during a recent presentation, she said.

Ms. Fausett declined to venture a guess on how much money the scanning process might save, but said it will save plenty of time for the lunch aides. Until now, they have had to transfer the information from notepad to computer at the end of every year.

The prices students pay for lunch fall into three categories, depending on a family’s income level: the full price, $2; the reduced price, 70 cents; and free.

The annual reports are sent to the state and federal governments, which in turn reimburse school districts for the amount of subsidized lunches served.

“It’s so archaic to transfer something from a sheet of paper to a computer day by day,” Ms. Fausett said.