High Tech Future.
There are over a million children enrolled in New York City Public Schools, with about 70 percent eligible for free and reduced meals. Validating those eligibility applications and keeping them current is an administrative challenge made more difficult by ingrained cultural and political factors, outdated technology and the nature of the school population itself.
It is Lorraine Burke's responsibility to overcome all that. Burke is deputy director of operations for New York SchoolFood. Under her direction, the system is slowly upgrading the way it processes free/reduced applications and tabulates participation at the point of service.
"Right now, we are still a paper-and-pencil kind of organization," she admits, "but we are aggressively moving into the electronic age."
The advent of that age has been spurred by the federal government's recent mandate for a focus audit of all applications in which the income is within $100 of the eligibility guidelines. Previously, it had required only a random audit of three thousand random applications.
"With a manual system at 1,600 locations, there is no way we could do that," Burke says. Indeed, the process, which relied on handcompleted forms and manual processing, could barely keep up with the old requirements.
So New York recently embarked on a pilot project that Burke hopes will lead to an automated system in which application data is scanned into a searchable database. The pilot involves a quarter of the system's schools.
Because the scanners require precisely measured data fields, the forms can no longer be printed off the school system website by applicants. Instead they are hand-delivered to families and then returned to schools where they are checked and placed into pre-addressed Federal Express envelopes so they can quickly be returned to the company charged with doing the scanning. The new applications are then checked against the data on file to test the technology's accuracy.
Burke's other technological challenge is the system that tabulates student participation in the school lunch program. The current method—manually checking students off on a paper class list as they pass through checkout, and then collating them by free, reduced and paid status—is obviously prone to inaccuracy.
The high-tech solution is an electronic POS system that displays each class roster at the checkout on a touchscreen and allows the cashier to check off kids moving through the line with the touch of a finger. The system automatically—and anonymously—separates and tabulates the participating students by pay status.
It was scheduled to begin rollout to 124 schools in October after a pilot program at a dozen schools verified its utility. Burke says the switchover will continue in phases.
"We are focusing our attention on high schools and schools with large cash collection because of the system's ability to allow parents to prepay for meals in advance," she says.