ROME, Ga. – It takes more than a lunch lady to run today's public school cafeterias. It takes a logistics expert.
Take Rome's West End Elementary, where two classrooms of students charge into the lunchroom every five minutes, load their trays up with corn dogs, steak nuggets and fresh fruit and pile into cashier Lydia Galego's line.
Galego, though, has a new tool to help handle the rush. Each student stops at a computer in front of Galego and presses an index finger up to a reader before trotting off to a table. The student's names flash across Galego's monitor, and each of their prepaid accounts are automatically debited $1.10.
Colleges and high schools have used fingerprint scanners to stop non-students from sneaking into dining halls and gyms. Now elementary schools are joining in, hoping that biometric devices are a good way to keep lines moving and pay for meals.
Districts elsewhere in the country use finger scans to dispense medicine, take attendance, check out books in the library or ensure that bus-riding students get off at the right stop.
Jay Fry, CEO of biometrics maker identiMetrics Inc., said elementary school districts are one of his company's fastest-growing markets.
"Elementary schools had for a long time shied away from these systems, because of the size of the finger," said Fry, a former middle school principal. But new devices can now identify a child as young as 4.
In Rome, administrators sent letters notifying parents of the program, explaining that fingerprints are neither stored by the system — it analyzes certain points on a finger only — nor linked to the Internet. Only 35 students opted out.
The scanners — part of a pilot program recently unveiled in Rome's 10 schools — have cut West End's lunch wait in half.
"They're moving through the lines faster and getting more time to eat," Doylene Burns, the cafeteria's manager, said above the din of chattering students. "That's what we're all aiming for — more time for them to eat."
For her part, Galego is sure not to leave everything to the computers.
She surveys each plate, ready to remind students if they've forgotten a fruit or doubled on dessert. Call it a low-tech safeguard to a high-tech solution.