The technology revolution in the dining hall

Technology is rapidly changing the way that business is done and the school catering industry is no different. Up and down the country a vast number of schools operate a cashless catering system at meal times. This means that instead of paying for the food with cash, students’ use a debit-style card or, in the case of high-tech biometric systems, pressing their finger to a reader.

Cashiers can use touch screen terminals to enter the food details and automatically will be informed of credit available, daily spend limit and any relevant dietary information. The technology revolution has reached the dining hall.  

Recently all primary schools in Solihull have adopted cashless systems and the effects have been clearly apparent. Benefits can be seen right through the school meal supply chain with children, parents, caterers, schools and local authorities all benefitting from cashless systems. More than 20,000 parents have signed up to the scheme, giving them the freedom to make payments 24 hours a day, seven days a week either online or at a local PayPoint Store. Since the project began in 2011 almost 400,000 transactions have been made with over £12 million being processed through the system, equating approximately £40,000 each month.

There were some very clear drivers behind the rationale for implementing cashless systems in Solihull which will hold true for local authorities and schools up and down the country. Firstly, children’s security is improved as the system stops the need for pupils to carry cash to school and risk being vulnerable to theft and bullying.

Secondly, the system helps to remove the stigma around free school meals. Cashless systems bring a degree of anonymity to pupils at lunchtime which means it is no longer easy to differentiate between those receiving free school meals and not, reinforcing a sense of inclusion in the dining hall.

Cashless catering has also improved the monitoring and management of the take up of meals and what children are eating.  What’s more, removing cash out of schools reduces paper work and admin time in school offices. This reduces printing and stationary costs and reduces the need for secure money collections. In Solihull this has averaged out to saving schools two and a half days’ administration a month, a significant amount of time which can be spent on other aspects of running a school.  

As well as the obvious benefits for parents paying for meals in advance and online, cashless systems increase parents’ confidence that their children are being fed healthy and nutritious meals as tills in school kitchen areas record what pupils eat each day. This can then be reported back so parents can view not only their child’s meal choice but also all the nutritional information of the food.
Local Solihull parents have reported that cashless systems have become an integral part of their relationship with schools and making payments is now far more flexible and easier. As an additional benefit, when logging on to  pay for their child’s food, parents are able to pay for other services such as school trips – schools report that this has increased the uptake and speed of payment. Increased engagement between parents and schools can only be a positive a development.

From a catering manager or Local Authority point of view the benefits are numerous; stock management becomes much more precise as the detail and quantity of what is being eaten every day is displayed online. This in turn allows managers to see what is and isn’t popular with pupils, amending menus and stock orders appropriately.

Perhaps one of the most important results of employing cashless systems has been the increase in uptake of school meals. Many parents think that a packed lunch is the healthiest option for their children yet the reality is quite the reverse as it’s easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal. Indeed only one per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food. Increasing uptake is a key aspect of improving nutrition for school pupils and was key tenet of the Government’s school food plan published last year, that cashless systems are helping facilitate this is a huge positive for the industry.
For councils and local authorities there are advantages too; not having to physically collect cash from schools saves both time and money and more accurate management of services, easier auditing and increased uptake is of course positive.
In what has been a monumental year for the school food industry – with the introduction of new standards and infant free school meals among the most notable developments – cashless catering systems are leading the charge in keeping the industry up to date in the 21st century. The value and rewards are manifold and almost immediately apparent once systems are in place, it is likely that cashless systems will soon become the norm everywhere, to the profit of us all.