By early next year, the children of Los Angeles will know the joy of plastic.

The L.A. Unified School District has been pilot testing a plastic debit card system in its cafeterias, and plans to start rolling the program out systemwide this spring, said David Koch, LAUSD's chief administrative officer.

Under the new system, each student will be issued a plastic, bar-coded card, which can be swiped through a cafeteria processing machine. Parents deposit money with the school, and then school officials electronically add an equivalent amount of credit to the student's card. When the student's card is swiped, the cost of his or her cafeteria meal is electronically deducted from the total on the card.

"It obviously simplifies the accounting and bookkeeping and ticket handling, and all that crazy stuff," said Koch. "Plus, it will be a decentralized system, where they can make the cards at the school. The data can then be uploaded, consolidated and combined."

Currently, students must pay cash for the cafeteria food they purchase. Students from low-income families, whose meals are partially or completely subsidized by the federal government, receive coupons to use at the cash register.

Under the new system, the value of those subsidized meals will be automatically credited to a student's card.

"We have about 80 percent of our kids on a fare-reduced plan. These kids can walk in and get a free meal every day, and yet they don't always do it," said Koch. "Part of it is because there's a stigma attached to obtaining a free meal. With the card, there will be total anonymity. If your parent has bought your meals, it's on your debit card. If you're free, the computer also has that. So just pick up your little tray at lunch, walk to the end of the line, and swipe your card."

The pilot program was started in the 1994-95 school year in 13 schools, said Anne Valenzuela-Smith, director of management services for LAUSD. Five more schools were added this year.

"For kindergartners and first graders it's great, because they no longer have to carry cash," she said.

Suzanne Rigby, director of nutrition and education for the American School Food Service Association, said some schools in other areas of the country have been using the debit card system for years.

"One of the larger school systems in Fairfax County, Virginia has been using a debit card for numerous years," she said. "Other school systems have experimented with different methods, such as thumb-print identification. There's also a system where each student memorizes an ID number and when the cashier punches it in, up pops up a picture of the student on the screen. But the most popular one is the debit card."

"Before the card, it was a really slow process," said Art Duardo, assistant principal at Woodrow Wilson High School in El Sereno, one of the schools where the program is being tested. "Most of the kids are involved in some way in the reduced-cost lunch program. Kids would put their tickets in their pockets, and their pants would get washed, so we would get soggy tickets."

Koch added that the cards will probably be used for other applications in the future. "You want to check out a card from the library? Take attendance? Why not use the same card? The kids adapt to this. They see their parents use credit cards, and they like it," he said. "This is where we're going in the longer term."

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