Big Brother in Iowa? School District Monitors Kids' Lunch Choices

An Iowa school district's lunch program asks children as young as 5 years old to memorize a four-digit PIN code so it can monitor what they eat in the school cafeteria -- prompting some parents to claim it's an unhealthy case of "Big Brother."

The Ankeny Community School District is maintaining a database that records what the kids buy to eat and then checks their food choices against national nutrition guidelines.

The program is intended to provide the children with more food options while ensuring compliance with new and stricter state-mandated nutrition requirements. But some parents are worried that the program infringes on people’s freedoms. And others want to know why their 5-year-olds need to memorize a PIN before they can tie their shoelaces, and what they’re supposed to do if they forget their four-digit number.

Garry Howe says he was shocked when his two sons brought home a letter from school last week informing him of the  program. The letter included two sets of PIN numbers — one for Benny, 5, who is in kindergarten, the other for Nate, 7, who is in second grade.

It read in part:

“The PIN numbers will make serving lines more efficient and allow more time for students to focus on their lunch selections through our offer vs. serve program and daily salad bar. This will in turn accommodate increased meal choices and the relocation of our point-of-sale machine.

“Classroom teachers have been working with students to memorize their PIN numbers. As students “check-out” they will tell the checkout scanner their number. The scanner will record the items purchased and verify that a lunch is purchased that meets the new National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines. The point of sale employee will also visually verify the student’s identity to ensure the appropriate number was given by the student.”

The letter went on to thank parents for helping their kids memorize the PINs and asked them to stress the importance of keeping the numbers confidential.

“My children have to memorize a four-digit PIN if they want to eat lunch at school,” said Howe, two of whose four children are in grades K-5. “It sounds like Big Brother to me....

“The PIN pulls up the child's picture for validation and records what the child is eating so Big Brother can keep track of my child's food consumption,” he said.

But the school district says the PIN system provides for quicker, more efficient and streamlined food service while ensuring what students select from the cafeteria complies with the law.

"We’re making sure that as they’re leaving the lunch line that the menu items they’ve selected match up with state law, so they’re selecting a meal that has all the basic [components] of good nutrition,” said school district spokesman Jarrett Peterson. “We’re not tracking what each individual child eats.”

The PIN program being rolled out this week is a response to Iowa’s 2008 Healthy Kids Act, which targets childhood obesity through an overhaul of school food, wellness and fitness programs throughout the state.

One provision of the law, which went into effect in July, says that any and all food offered on school grounds — in vending machines, a la carte cafeteria options, even fundraising bake sales — must adhere to federal guidelines.

Peterson said the school district is not storing the information in any kind of database.

“We are not tracking each individual student’s meals, we are tracking to make sure the meals we serve are in compliance with the Healthy Kids Act,” he said.

It’s not unusual to use technology to ensure compliance with federal nutrition standards, said Rochelle Davis, founding executive director of Healthy Schools Campaign, a Chicago-based national non-profit organization that advocates for healthier schools.

“A lot of school districts have moved to students having a card or a code,” she said. “I’ve mostly heard about it in connection with tracking money and trying to deal with student confidentiality, so the fact that they’re monitoring one extra thing might just be in the end a good third use.”

But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy center, said there is a growing trend of schools collecting student data and that schools need to be open with parents about what they’re doing with that student information.

He said he could not recall hearing about a program like this. 

“It’s interesting, it’s obviously more than just debiting of student account, it’s about tracking what kids are eating in kindergarten,” Rotenberg said.

“What exactly is the point? Seems like there’s a much less intrusive way to meet this goal. It’s also kind of weird to teach kindergartners how to remember PIN numbers so they can get lunch.”

Davis didn’t think this would be much of an issue.

“I’m amazed how young kids don’t have problems with technology and remembering their passwords, their parents' passwords, cell phone numbers,” she said. “It’s a four digit pin number — I don’t know if it’s a huge issue.”

But Howe says it’s ridiculous that Benny, his 5-year-old, has to memorize a PIN, though he isn't too concerned about his older son.

“I just asked Nate if he knew his number, and he rattled it off with no problem,” Howe said.

“Benny had no idea.”