Akron school employs bio-scan technology

Sarah Baldwin

AKRON — Akron North High School will begin using the “iMEAL” program in its cafeteria later this spring.

“i MEAL is our automated point-of-sale cash register system,” said Debra J. Folk, coordinator of business support services for Akron Child Nutrition Service.

The way the system works is by taking a “bio-scan” of a student’s index finger. The scan then generates a 39-digit code that is unique to each student and cannot be stolen, which is an issue for other types of systems, Folk said.

The iMEAL lunch-purchasing system was started in 2003 by the Child Nutrition Service in an effort to make buying a school lunch an easier task for both students and lunch staff.

It’s similar to a bank account with a random code assigned to each student, Folk said. The machine is not using the fingerprint at all. The finger scan is the key to get to the unique code for each student.

“I think it’s pretty amazing,” Akron North High School senior Laura Triola said. “I never thought that public schools could get to that level of technology.”

The Child Nutrition Service selection committee had considered two other kinds of systems when switching over from the punch cards.

The committee looked at the option of using scan cards but decided against implementing them because there was too much personal information available on the cards, which made the committee very skeptical of using such a plan, said Folk.

Using a PIN number exclusively was also out of the question because the number can be easily seen and traded. The committee visited schools that used a PIN system, and there were instances of some students not getting lunch because someone had already used their PIN number, Folk said.

“We wanted to be technology savvy,” she said.

When the committee made the decision to go with the bio-scan technology, they first looked at 10 different companies, then five, and finally narrowed it down to two. The committee then went to schools that already were using the systems and watched them in progress. After that, the committee selected the package they thought would work best. The vendor chosen was Systems Technology Group Inc., out of Buffalo, N.Y., Folk said.

The committee then gave presentations of the proposed program to the Akron City Schools senior staff, PTA group, parents, and finally, to the school board, which approved the whole system in May 2003.

Currently, 13 schools in the Akron City School District use the iMEAL program, with four more slated to begin using it soon.

Folk said she was surprised that many of the students already knew about biometric technology and were comfortable with it when the system was first started.

One big perk about iMEAL according to Folk, is that there has been an increase in middle school students getting lunch since the program began, as students who are embarrassed about being on the free or reduced lunch program can now eat without any social stigma.

Goodyear Middle School cafeteria cook Karen Heinl sees the program in action daily.

“We love it. There’re no tickets, and there’s no discrimination,” Heinl said.

Contact public affairs reporter Sarah Baldwin at [email protected].