Thursday, May 29, 2003

Cafeteria will be scanning fingers

The Associated Press

AKRON - School officials hope a new fingerprint scanning system will make needy youngsters comfortable getting free cafeteria meals.

The system will be implemented in the fall in Akron's middle and high schools serving 15,000 youngsters, about half of whom are eligible for free or discounted meals.

Because of the poverty stigma of free meals, only 19 percent of high school students and 26 percent of middle school students apply, Debra Foulk, nutrition coordinator for city schools, said Wednesday.

For those who pay, the system allows parents to skip the routine of putting lunch money in a youngster's hand. Instead, they can send a check to the school, with the money credited to the student's meal account.

The system can eliminate the free-meal stigma because all youngsters must put a finger in a scanner to go through the cafeteria line.

The system, which will cost $700,000, was approved by a 5-2 school board vote Tuesday.

Garfield Heights schools in suburban Cleveland pioneered the system in Ohio two years ago and have had a good experience with it, said Dawn Wheeler, food service coordinator.

"It reduces labor costs and it gives us accurate reporting information for federal and state reimbursement meals," she said.

The scanner compares a youngster's fingerprint with a stored image of a partial print. School officials said the actual full print will not be kept on record, a key concern of privacy advocates.

Akron parents with concerns about the system can opt out and bring lunch. In Garfield Heights, about six families out of 1,500 students have opted out, Wheeler said.

Garfield Heights and Akron both chose the scanner from Sagem Morpho Inc. of Tacoma, Wash.

Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said privacy concerns make it important that fingerprints don't get into the wrong hands.

Akron school board member Rebecca Heimbaugh, who voted against the system, said privacy concerns would probably keep her from enrolling her three youngsters in the scanner system.

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