Facebook app tracks student cafeteria purchases

Meals Plus systems also alert cafeteria coordinators which products are selling

Schools across the nation are using a new Facebook application to streamline cafeteria processes and inform parents about the nutrition their children receive at school.

The Meals Plus cafeteria software program offers real-time analysis of a variety of information regarding meal costs, including plate costs, meals per labor hour, expense allocation costs,  sales-by-meal analysis, revenue, expenses, income, meal counts, and supplemental (a la carte) sales.

The software manages the lunchroom more like a business, generating reports on supplies and costs. It is currently in use in 2,800 cafeterias in 29 states.

With the success of the software, Meals Plus announced a new Facebook application that lets parents monitor what their children are eating and purchasing at school. Lunchprepay.com connects parents directly to their students’ lunch history. While on the site, parents can make payments directly into their child’s cafeteria account, view what products their students are buying, and observe the school district’s menu.

“The parents will be able to really analyze the history of what their students are eating,” said Brittany Benge, child nutrition director for Davidson County Schools in North Carolina. “It will cut down the spending on the junk foods or the a la carte items that are not contributing to a meal pattern.”

The app comes on the heels of the Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which placed a greater demand on school cafeteria management for cost control and nutrition. The legislation provided incentives to improve farm-to-table options and required re-strategizing menu planning and nutritional analysis.

“We’ve had success within our school in that our parents are able to log on to the Lunchprepay.com website and see what their children are eating,” said Benge. “If they question why their children are burning through so much money, we can tell them that they’re buying cookies or ice cream. Although they meet the nutritional standards that are set out by the state, they still have some empty calories to them.”

The districts using the program hope that Facebook is ubiquitous enough to reach a large quantity of parents.

“Facebook is a medium that a lot of family members are using now—our parents are probably on Facebook more times than on a regular webpage,” Benge said.

The software that powers the Facebook app also could help the districts save money.

“It can help target what the kids are actually eating and see what the emphasis we need to put on our programs is. If they’re consuming more of an entrée versus a side item, we probably want to use a higher dollar meal item for the entrée, so that it can be a little bit more of a premium choice,” said Benge. “I think that helps to cut down on the excessive spending and really concentrate more on the reimbursable meals.”

Benge’s district plans on starting use of the program at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year.

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