Taking a Byte Out of Meal Programs

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Prepaid products such as credit cards and cell phones have become increasingly popular for both cash-strapped adults and parents trying to teach their children financial responsibility. Based on this trend, Horizon Software International LLC has released MealPay (www.mealpay.com), a unique meal payment system that lets parents prepay and manage their child’s meal cards via the Web, telephone, or at on-campus kiosks. For schools, this means no longer having to worry about students with lost or stolen lunch money.

The easy-to-use, fee-based system allows parents to create a user name and password that lets them make payments toward their child’s meals using a check or credit card. MealPay also enables parents to keep track of their child’s balance in real time and provides the option to set low-balance reminders so they know when to add more money to the account. In addition, parents can use MealPay’s automatic replenishment system to add a set dollar amount to their child’s account whenever necessary.

“It’s a win-win [situation] for everybody involved,” says Director of MealPay Tina Bennett. “Since we handle everything for the schools, it’s easy for them, and parents can rest easy knowing the money they give their child can only go toward eating."

Currently being used in 65 school districts nationwide, MealPay relies on 128-bit SSL encryption -- the same security encryption as typical banking and financial e-commerce Web sites -- for secure transactions.

"From a technical stand-point, we havent had any troubles," says Jeff Peohank, a tech support specialist and parent at Cobb County Public Schools in Georgia. He adds that the only problems experienced by the district since the system has been in place have been human arrors such as parents setting their reminder system at zero and not being notified that their child's card was running low until it was too late.

According to Cynthia Downs, director of nutrition and food services at Cobb County Public Schools, the most significant aspect of the program is that it has considerably cut the number of non-sufficient checks the school district receives, since MealPay notifies the district within two days of receiving a bad chack (instead of the two weeks it took for notification before the system was in place).

MealPay collects all meal payments and transfers those monies to the districts, which means far less work for them. Fees for the MealPay program are charged as a percentage of a district's total bill, and districts set their own guidelines for how the transaction fees associated with the program are paid. While some districtssuch as Cobb County choose to pay the fees themselves at a 4.75 percent rate of their total bill (no transaction fees are charged to users), others charge the parents a flat fee to use the system. And like Cobb County, some districts even have plans to set up the system so that their students will be able to pay for anything at school, using their MealPay cards.

“We plan on trying to use the system for other things on campus, like paying for pictures or annuals,” says Downs. “Next year, we’re going to change it so that the parents will start paying the fees themselves, which will help free up money for the district for other projects.”

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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