Georgia Schools Let Parents Monitor Kids' Diet

A new service in some Georgia schools allows parents to keep tabs on what their children are eating for lunch. Kids pay with a credit card that parents can monitor online. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

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The number of overweight children in our country has doubled in just one generation according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School cafeterias are becoming a battleground in fighting childhood obesity. While many now offer healthy fare, kids aren't always eating it. A new computer program developed in Georgia is helping parents keep tabs on what their kids eat at school. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting has this report.

(Soundbite of cafeteria noise)

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO reporting:

It's lunchtime at the Center for Advanced Academics, a magnet elementary school in Marietta. Here the children line up neatly in the cafeteria and fill their plates with pizza. Then they pass an array of salads, vegetables and fruits to go along with it.

KEILY GEEKIAN(ph) (Fifth-Grader): I've got pizza, carrots, celery, apples, oranges and some egg salad.

CAPELOUTO: Fifth-grader Keily Geekian pushes her full plate to the register. She pushes a few keys on the key pad. It's her code for the cashier.

K. GEEKIAN: We just press our number in and they press enter and it shows up our names and our little picture from last year and they know that we bought that and that's how they record it to the Internet.

CAPELOUTO: Keily's parents can now check on her lunch choices online. It is part of a program called MealPay. Tina Bennett is MealPay's director.

Ms. TINA BENNETT (Director, MealPay): It does show the date. It shows the time they bought it, the line they went through, the transaction number, the quantity and then it shows a description of what they're eating. There are some chips in there and there are some canned drinks on those students, so you know that they're having some type of soda or something like that. But that's something that mom can look at from that point.

CAPELOUTO: MealPay allows parents to use a credit card to pay for the kids lunch online. This new added feature, called a purchase history, tracks day by day what the kids are buying with the money. In high schools, where fruit and salad bars compete with the junk food in vending machines, Sandy Laffan, head of nutrition for Marietta schools, says MealPay can become a powerful tool for parents.

Ms. SANDY LAFFAN (Head of Nutrition, Marietta Schools): They can go back and research what the child is eating. That's even an added benefit. There's no reason for saying `I don't know' and just going on what the child is saying. Because they might just say what the parent wants to hear, instead of saying, `Well, I really did not use my lunch money for lunch. I really spent it somewhere else.'

CAPELOUTO: MealPay is still a novelty here. It is available at 12 schools in Marietta, but only about 50 parents use it. There is a $2 service charge for deposits made by credit card, but for Keily's dad, Tom Geekian, it's not too much to pay for more control over Keily and her sister.

Mr. TOM GEEKIAN (MealPay User): They're going to make good decisions most of the time about what they eat, but it allows me to go in and just see what are they purchasing from a standpoint of making sure are we getting what we need nutritionally just to be sure what's happening. And it's just another way to stay kind of on tabs of what your children are doing.

CAPELOUTO: But not everyone needs a computer program or parental oversights to pick good foods.

(Soundbite of cafeteria noise)

CAPELOUTO: Fourth-grader Jada Wright(ph) knows why she's eating oranges and corn today with her pizza.

JADA WRIGHT (Fourth-Grader): I think it's important to eat healthy so you can get--build strong bones like--and so that you can play basketball like me.

(Soundbite of cafeteria noise)

CAPELOUTO: MealPay currently processes $2.5 million a month for cafeterias in 25 states. Of its 80 clients, officials say about 17 have requested the purchase history function. The others are waiting for more space on their computer servers to house the free program. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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