Kids can now cut the line for lunch

Web site lets parents order in advance at Somerset school

Sunday, October 12, 2003

BY PETER N. SPENCER
Star-Ledger Staff

The collective school lunch experience is like a scene straight out of Dickens: timid students standing in line in industrial cafeterias, waiting for a stone-faced cook to spoon out mystery meat from copper pots.

Except, no one had the stomach to say, "Please sir, I want some more."

But students at Woodland School in Warren Township don't have to settle for drab lunches anymore.

This month the Somerset County elementary school -- which, like the four other primary schools in the district, has no kitchen to prepare meals -- began using an online ordering system, where parents can go to a Web site and choose their children's lunches from local restaurants one month in advance.

The secure site was designed for the school's three "Food Days," run by the PTO Food Committee at all five schools every week. On pizza day, students can get any number of slices of pepperoni, plain or grilled chicken pizza from Antonio's pizzeria for $1.25 each; on another day, they can select from a wide range of pastas, like a $3.25 plate of spaghetti and meatballs from Cafe Giardino. Then, of course, there's Burger King day.

After they've made their selections, and paid with a check or credit card, the order is sent to suppliers, who later deliver the food directly to the schools.

And because the members of the food committee already know who gets what, there's no more waiting in lines, sapping time from the precious 20 minutes students have to eat.

The system was devised by Michael Thwaite, a PTO member and vice president of infrastructure at GAIN Capital, a Warren-based investment company. Thwaite researched Web-based ordering systems, looking for a template on which to base his Web site, myfooddays.com, but he had to start from scratch.

"It's not a complicated program," Thwaite said. "But, as far as I know, it's the first of its kind."

Of the 327 students at Woodland School, parents of more than 200 have already signed on to the My Food Days site, with that number growing every week, said Thwaite. Now other district schools have asked to use it, and the 750-student Warren Middle School will begin ordering lunch online this week.

For at least 30 years, schools in the district having been using the Food Days program, which has translated into a boon for six local vendors -- O'Bagel, Antonio's, Burger King, Cafe Giardino, Bagels 4 You and Jade Garden. Last year alone, they were paid more than $200,000, based on projections by middle school PTO President Liz George, who coordinates the Food Days at the middle school and at Woodland last year.

"Some of these vendors make a lot of their yearly revenue from our schools," said George.

Woodland School's online lunch is unique, said Eva Ostrum, who has worked for 17 years as a teacher in all grade levels, and is the founder and chief executive officer for College Broadband Inc., an education consulting firm.

Faced with broader curriculums, higher academic standards and a battery of tests, students have larger workloads than ever before, said Ostrum. While the length of the school day has remained the same, schools have recently had to shorten lunch periods to accommodate the time crunch.

"Anything that would winnow down the amount of time spent waiting for lunch is a good idea." Ostrum said. "Kids just need some time to play."

School districts across the nation are taking advantage of time-saving technology to streamline their lunch operations. Schools in most states already offer online menus, and, in districts in North Carolina, California, New York and Florida, parents can deposit money into their children's lunch account via the Internet or by entering credit card numbers with a digital telephone payment system.

Woodland's program has taken the convenience a step further, and most closely resembles one in New Zealand, where an entrepreneur also has developed a service that allows parents to order and pay for their children's school lunches online. The makers of www.Tuckshop.co.nz charge $225 per year to host the site, with the rest of the cost defrayed by advertisement. They expect to have 10 percent of New Zealand's 2,700 schools on board with the system by the end of next year.

Lunch at schools in Warren Township has long been a time-consuming hassle. Without kitchens to prepare meals, parents had few choices: brown bag it or place orders from local vendors three days a week.

It took three hours for the 10 to 12 food committee members to count the handwritten slips, make sure every check was written for the proper amount and fill out orders to each vendor, said Pamela Thwaite, president of the Woodland PTO.

Pamela Thwaite, who recently moved here with her two children a few years ago from Yorkshire, England, attended a PTO meeting last year with her husband Michael, listening to parents complain about the time-consuming hassle of lunch.

So Michael Thwaite, who said he has worked on computers "practically since he was born," told them he could create a program to make life a little easier.

He worked on the Microsoft-based Web page all summer, and when he came back to a PTO meeting this fall with a working prototype, he received a standing ovation from all the parents.

"I thought it was fantastic," said Peggy Austin, a PTO Food Committee member and mother of two Woodland students, who spends an average of $50 a month on school lunches. "I'd pay whatever it cost because I don't have to make them lunch in the morning."

Austin was tired of haggling with her two daughters, 9-year-old Molly and 6-year-old Paige, about peanut-butter-and-jelly or bologna sandwiches.

Lunch has come a long way from the days when Austin went to school in Jacksonville, Fla., in the mid 1960s, waiting in line with her white ticket for meatloaf with vegetables, or turkey and mashed potatoes, but hopefully not the dreaded Salisbury steak.

Once in a while there was pizza.

"Pizza day was very special," she said. "It happened maybe once a month.

Now Austin sits down at the computer with her daughters, and lunch is as easy as point and click. They choose food they actually want to eat, she said.

Peter N. Spencer works in the Somerset County news bureau. He can be reached at pspencer@starledger.com or (908) 429-9925.