Just as technology is changing what happens in the classroom, it's also transforming the school-lunch program in the South-Western City School District.

Where school lunch menus used to be sent home and posted on the refrigerator, now families are able to access menus, as well as nutritional and allergen information, using an app on their smartphone.

And parents don't have to worry about a child losing their lunch money.

Each student is given a pin number he or she can punch in to a device at checkout to access their family's PayPAMS account.

PayPAMS is a mobile app that provides parents with options to prepay for student meals, check students' meal-account balances and view the history of their cafeteria purchases.

This year, the district's food-service department has switched to Nutrislice, an interactive menu system.

"It's a very informative and user-friendly app," said Lisa Mehl, food service director. "It's so easy to navigate.

"Parents cannot only look at each day's menu but also get nutritional and allergen information about each and every item we are serving," she said.

"Nutrition is becoming so important to families. They want to know that their child is getting a healthy, nutritious lunch," she said.

The app makes it easier for the food-service staff to serve students and their families, Mehl said.

"Everybody has a smartphone these days. It's the way everyone communicates and gets information," she said. "It makes it easier for us to communicate information to our families."

Ahead of the new school year, the district spent about $125,000 to purchase new equipment for its cafeterias and kitchens, said Monte Detterman, South-Western's director of business services.

"This year a good portion of the cost was tied to the reopening of the East Franklin Elementary (School) building," he said. "There is a certain life span expected for each piece of equipment, but we're always evaluating equipment and determining what needs repair or replacement."

When an oven must be replaced, "it's not like buying a new oven for your kitchen at home," Detterman said.

"You're talking hundreds of dollars at home. For an industrial size oven, it's thousands," he said.

The equipment was purchased using food-service funds, he said, and the department is self-sufficient.

"There is no money set aside in the general fund for food service," he said. "All of our food-service expenses must be paid using revenue the department generates."

The revenue mostly comes from the cost for breakfast and lunch that students pay and the federal reimbursement the district receives as a participant in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, which offer free and reduced-price meals for students whose families meet income eligibility guidelines.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents.

In a report she gave the South-Western school board last month, Mehl said 5,539 students in the district have directly qualified for free meals. The district's total enrollment in 2017-18 was 22,082. South-Western serves on average about 13,000 lunches a day and more than 6,700 breakfasts at 32 school buildings, Mehl said.

The district may serve more meals than any other food operation in the area, but the goal is not to make money, she said.

"We're just looking to break even," Mehl said. "Any money we would make would have to go back to helping fund our department's operations."

For fiscal year 2018, the food-service department's revenue totaling $10,960,031 and expenditures totaling $10,073,977.

While unlike restaurants, the food-service department isn't trying to make a profit, staffers are still concerned about what the "customers" -- students -- like to eat, Mehl said.

"We have to balance the nutritional needs of our students and nutritional requirements for school meals with finding things they want to eat," Mehl said. "We make our menu choices based on food trends and the feedback we receive from our students."

At the elementary-school level, students are offered a single entree choice each day for lunch, but in the high schools, students have three choices.

During the second week of school, the menu for elementary students included a chicken patty sandwich, pizza and maple-glazed french toast sticks with cheese omelet.

High school students were offered fare as pizza, chicken sandwiches and cheeseburgers, but also could select Bosco sticks (breadsticks) with marinara sauce, sriracha chicken with rice or tacos.

"High school students are more open to enjoying spicier food than younger students," Mehl said. "They have more varied tastes."

That allows the food service department to try some new menu choices, but it's always done by offering students samples as a taste test, she said.

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