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School Accounts Track, Restrict Kids' Diets

A student slides a tray toward the cafeteria cash register with a healthy selection: a pint of milk, green beans, whipped sweet potatoes and chicken nuggets — baked, not fried. But then he adds a fudge brownie.

When he punches in his code for the prepaid account his parents set up, a warning sounds: "This student has a food restriction."

Back goes the brownie as the cashier reminds him that his parents have declared all desserts off-limits.

This could be a common occurrence at Houston schools when the district becomes one of the largest in the nation with a cafeteria automation system that lets parents dictate — and track — what their kids get.

Primero Food Service Solutions, developed by Houston-based Cybersoft Technologies, allows parents to set up prepaid lunch accounts so children don't have to carry money, said Ray Barger, Cybersoft's director of sales and marketing.

It also shows the cashier any food allergies or parent-set diet restrictions for his or her account, and the student is not allowed to buy an offending item.

Parents also can go online to track their child's eating habits and make changes.

"If parents want Johnny to eat chips one day a week, they can go in and make changes to allow them to buy a bag of chips on, say, Fridays," said Terry Abbott, spokesman for Houston Independent School District, the nation's seventh-largest with more than 250,000 students.

Robin Green, whose 14-year-old son, Jerry, is in seventh grade in the Houston district, said she would probably sign up for the new voluntary monitoring system once it's implemented within the next year.

Green was concerned that parents from low-income families without access to computers would not be able to participate, but Abbott said parents can go to their school and work with cafeteria representatives.

Barger said his company's system already is being used in schools in Arizona, Oklahoma, Michigan and Tennessee, as well as other Texas cities. Several other companies have similar cafeteria monitoring programs at other schools.

Prepaid cafeteria accounts have been around for five to 10 years, but programs that allow parents to say what their kids can or can't eat are a more recent development, said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the Washington-based School Nutrition Association. His organization did not have exact figures on how many school districts use such programs.

The Pearland school district just outside Houston set up one of the systems at its 17 campuses in August.

"Overall, it's benefited everyone. Students go through the line faster. It's good for parents because they can track what their kids are spending," said Dorothy Simpson, food service director for Pearland schools.

The system, which will cost the Houston district $5.3 million, also serves as an accounting program that lets the school district plan menus and allows for faster enrollment of students in free and reduced lunch programs.

School officials and nutrition experts say this type of monitoring program could help tackle child obesity.

In the past 20 years, the number of overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled and the number of overweight adolescents ages 12 to 19 more than tripled, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Karen Cullen, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, cautioned that the system is good only if it sparks communication between parents and their children on healthy food choices.

"Kids need to be able to make healthy choices," Cullen said. "Parents can't be in charge. Children need some freedom."