Cashless catering that makes a point

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh looks at how one school rewards healthy eating with the swipe of a smart card

Cashless catering, using computers, smart cards and intelligent tills, has freed many schools from handling dinner tickets and endless small amounts of money. It also helps some to tackle the problem of children being bullied by dinner money thieves.

In many systems, pupils bring in cash or a cheque and the value is loaded on to their swipe card using a computer or specially equipped till. When a pupil has moved along the food counter, the cashier keys each item into the till, removes the cost from their swipe card and prints out an itemised receipt. The till can be connected to a computer to keep detailed accounts.

In similar schemes pupils may be able to recharge their accounts with cash at a machine, or the cards may carry no value and be used simply to identify which pupil's account is to be debited by the amount keyed into the till.

As the till and computer do the accounting, the system co-incidentally records what each pupil eats. This means that anyone looking at the system can see, for example, that John, sent off to school on Monday with pound;10, has eaten nothing but pound;3 worth of chips and beans all week. Some people feel that this smacks of intrusion, but it can be useful if a parent is worried about a child's eating habits, or thinks that dinner money is being misused.

While we may know that we ought to order a jacket potato instead of chips, how much more rewarding it would be if the waiter were to come along and give prizes for choosing the healthier option. This, effectively, is what happens in more than 20 schools served by the catering contractor Chartwells, whose customers mainly are in the independent and grant-maintained sectors. It is using the ability to record what children eat as an opportunity to promote sensible eating.

"We are an educational caterer," says Alison Clarke, Chartwells' nutrition and food services manager. "Our clients expect that from us."

To discover how best to promote wise meal choices, the firm took the opinions of a large number of children and came up with a system of reward points based on that. Different points are allocated to the various menu items, so that children who eat a healthy, balanced diet will build up points most quickly.

Ms Clarke is keen to emphasise that the accent in the system is not on so-called healthy choices, or on the rejection of some foods, but on balanced eating, with choices from each major food group.

"We want to get away from the myth that to try to eat healthily is to eat only salads," she says. "We want children to see that all foods are healthy in sensible proportions, that what matters is the balance of foods on the plate."

The points are carefully allocated to promote this. A jacket potato, for example, carries 30 points, as does a portion of rice and a portion of mashed potatoes. Chips carry none. A plate of salad carries 20 points, and pizza only 10. There is no encouragement towards slimming, and if a child looks to be over-eating just to gain points then they are talked to about the sense of this.

Typically a child can walk away from the till with 40 to 100 points for a main course with meat and vegetables, a dessert and fruit juice. Five days a week of that will clock up more than 200 points, so 1,000 points is a reasonable half-term target.

A child who accumulates 1,000 points is eligible for a pound;1 WH Smith music voucher; 10,000 points wins a pound;10 voucher or a personal stereo system.

Jane Tew, Chartwells' catering manager at King Henry VIII School in Coventry, is very keen on the system and has found that that there is a noticeable effect on the kinds of food she sells. "Sales of vegetables are up by about 50 per cent, fresh fruit about 30 per cent, and they are going mad for mashed potatoes."

Chips consumption, on the other hand, is decreasing. In the junior school at King Henry's they are available only twice a week.

But does the prospect of a pound;1 voucher really encourage children to change their habits? Talking to them, you realise that what happens is that eaters of varied balanced diets are encouraged to continue doing so, middle-of-the-road eaters are motivated to make marginal adjustments, and a few poor choosers make no change at all.

Ms Clarke does not expect the points system to cause many children to make a sudden change in eating habits. "They are more likely to continue if they are nudged along rather than pushed in a really big U-turn," she says.

Ten-year-old Jenny Ward, who is in Year 5 at King Henry's and has more than 3,500 points on her card, likes the points system but feels that she would eat well anyway. A typical meal for her is a meat dish, a jacket potato, green beans and sweetcorn. "I just like that sort of food," she says.

Nine-year-old Alison Crewe-Smith is of a similar opinion. For lunch she had eaten lamb lasagne, roast potatoes, peas, carrots and an iced bun. She had drunk "free water" as usual: "I think the drinks are too expensive." She says: "I do like to have a change, something like sausage, beans and chips. But I don't like a really greasy meal because it gives me wind."

Sarah Davies, aged 15, of St Edward's School in Cheltenham, who has collected more than 6,000 points in a term and a half, says: "I'll usually have vegetarian lasagne and a piece of fruit and a fruit juice. I might have two drinks on games day." This probably nets her about 80 to 100 points each time.

"I eat like that anyway and the points are a bonus to me. But I think it's really good to encourage children who are stuck on burgers and chips."

u Chartwells, Icknield House, 40 West Street, Dunstable LU6 1TA.

Tel: 01582 600222 u The Chartwells cashless system is supplied by CCM Southwest, Unit 6, Crown Close, Crown Industrial Estate, Priorswood, Taunton, Somerset TA2 8QY. Tel: 01823 331166 u A no-cash-value card system is available from Cunningham Cashless Systems, 132 Alcester Road, Moseley, Birmingham B13 8EE.

Tel: 0121 449 6161 march 5J1999 TES resources 99 33 'We want children to see that all foods are healthy in sensible proportions, that what matters is the balance' photogrAphs: mike sewell 247media

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