By now many school principals, superintendents and administrators have probably heard of school lunch biometrics, or the use of devices such as fingerprint readers to recognize students and allow for the automated payment and accounting of school lunch purchases. Some may be wondering how to sort the promise from the hype, the information from the misinformation.
While school lunch biometrics can legitimately address a host of problems from slow lunch lines, lost lunch money, cumbersome payment, lunch fraud and bullying, to falling National School Lunch Program (NSLP) participation, the devil is in the details. Of course, it all comes down to the bottom line: labor, cost efficiency, and return on investment (ROI). This article presents the pluses and minuses of school lunch biometrics versus more traditional technologies so administrators can decide if it makes sense for their schools.
How do school lunch biometric systems work and do they protect privacy?
In most school lunch biometric systems, students place a forefinger on a small fingerprint reader by the register. In seconds, the system translates the electronic print into a mathematical pattern, discards the fingerprint image, and matches the pattern to the student’s meal account information. Food Service Solutions (FSS) biometric software, for example, plots 27 points on a grid that correspond with the fingerprint's ridges to achieve positive identification, but saves no actual fingerprint image.
When school lunch biometric systems like FSS's are numerically-based and discard the actual fingerprint image, they cannot be used for any purpose other than recognizing a student within a registered group of students. Since there's no stored fingerprint image, the data is useless to law enforcement, which requires actual fingerprint images. As there’s no way for any fingerprint or computer expert to extract a record and reconstruct a person's fingerprint image from purely numerical data, privacy is protected.
Do biometrics speed school lunch lines?
Though some providers claim that biometrics speed up every school lunch line, this isn't always the case. Biometric systems will speed lunch lines where cash is primarily used because students, especially younger ones, are prone to losing or misplacing cash and extra time is taken to make correct change. They will speed lines over Personal Identification Number (PIN)-based systems, which take time to enter and students tend to forget. They'll also speed lines over magnetic card-based systems, which take time to fish out of pockets and swipe.
Because biometric systems typically take a few seconds to recognize a student and access his or her account information, they're not necessarily faster than well-organized roster-based systems, where a name is checked of a list, or ticket-based systems where a color coated tickets are simply collected.
A good biometric system, however, will save a significant amount of administrative labor and cost. Because accounts are prepaid and students can never lose their finger for identification, it eliminates a number of time-consuming administrative problems such as lost lunch money, lunch money bullying, card replacement, or account fraud caused by stolen cards, overheard PIN numbers, or other cases of identity theft.
Moreover, because biometric systems automate the payment and accounting of school lunches, they eliminate tedious backend administrative chores such as cash, ticket, or paper-based handling, accounting, reconciling, and oversight.
Do biometric systems work with younger children?
Administrators may have heard that biometric systems either work with all younger children or none at all. Neither is true. The fact is that biometric systems tend to have a higher misread rate on young children about age four or five, who are typically in preschool or kindergarten, because their fingerprints haven't sufficiently developed. On these younger children, a good biometric system should have a successful identification rate of about 80 to 85 percent.
On children and adults from about age six onward, a good biometric system should successfully identify and debit about 96 to 97 percent, a figure substantially higher than most swipe cards or card readers. For the small number of students unsuccessfully identified by a biometric system, administrators may want to have a back up system in place such as a last name lookup.
Biometric systems may also have difficulty recognizing a student undergoing a growth spurt, as their fingerprint pattern may change as their body grows. When this occurs, typically around grades five and nine, having a biometric system that allows quick re-registration can be important. Because some systems enable re-registration in about a minute, this can occur right in the lunch line or towards the end of lunch.
Why is the identification success rate so important?
Because a biometric system’s student identification success rate can determine its success or failure in a school lunch program, administrators should consider how reliable and easy to maintain a system is before purchase. For better reliability and minimal maintenance, administrators should opt for optical biometric sensors, which function using light. These typically feature a special scratchproof glass made of a material as hard as quartz that requires no treatment or maintenance. They're also resistant to shock, corrosion, electrostatic discharge and extreme weather, while offering a larger imaging area that makes finger placement easier for more forgiving readings.
On the other hand, capacitive sensors, which function using a computer chip or semiconductor, usually require surface treatments and protective coatings to protect from shock, electrostatic discharge, and other dangers. As the coatings wear, performance tends to degrade. Since the silicon chips are inherently fragile, they're also more susceptible to damage by scratches and rough handling. A typically smaller imaging area also requires stricter, more consistent finger placement for satisfactory student identification.
Why working with an experienced biometric provider is critical
For the same reason administrators wouldn't want a surgeon straight out of medical school operating on them, they may want to take a pass on inexperienced biometric system providers. New entrants to the school lunch biometric market, in fact, have been working in the field for as little as 18 months, which gives little time to work out the subtleties of successful installation. In contrast, some veteran biometric system providers have almost a decade of experience in implementing such systems in real-life school settings.
In order to provide a maximum student identification success rate, the most experienced biometric system providers will consider subtleties such as fingerprint scanner placement, average student height and handedness. Administrators may also want to choose a system provider that allows students to use any point-of-sale register, even at other schools within the district, with a one-time registration. In contrast, some biometric providers require students to register at every register they intend to use. Getting such details right not only improves the system's student identification success rate, but also speeds recognition so lines move faster.
Why considering biometric system expandability is a must
Besides student recognition, account debiting, and pre-payment, the most flexible school lunch biometric systems today offer administrators and parents some valuable extras.
For example, one biometric school lunch program, (www.myschoolaccount.com), has an online component that allows parents to pre-pay for school lunches as well as monitor their children’s food choices. The technology even enables parents to restrict their children's choices to avoid ‘special diet’ conflicts or to prevent children from purchasing high fat, high sugar a la carte items.
Once administrators get a biometric school lunch program successfully up and running, some find that the system naturally extends to other school services such as attendance, tracking and boosting National School Lunch Program (NSLP) participation, or checking out textbooks and school library materials.
Mitch Johns is President and Founder of Food Service Solutions (www.foodserve.com). He has more than 20 years experience in food service technology and pioneered the use of biometric identification in school food service almost a decade ago.