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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Mariya Babaskina, product coordinator for Meal Pay Plus



Mariya3 It's holiday time, when everyone is eating what they want and then talking about watching their weight later. In Hillsborough and Pinellas schools, parents can do their monitoring of their kids' food intake through the online Meal Pay Plus program. The company is making a push to better inform parents of the options they have using the system, including a new parent savings program and a Facebook fan page for updates. Product coordinator Mariya Babaskina spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek.

For people who are not aware of what Meal Pay Plus is, how does it work?

Meal Pay Plus is a simple online payment system for parents. Really easy to use. They just go online, register for their free account. It also has tons of capabilities. They can set up low balance e-mail reminders. ... They can also set up auto replenishment on their accounts so they don't have to worry about going online and replenishing every now and then, or even sending money to school with their kids. ...

Can a parent talk to the school through the Meal Pay Plus? Like, don't sell chocolate to my kid?

Not yet. But we are looking to possibly add that enhancement. ... But the district and school can actually communicate with the parents. If the districts have a very important message they want to let Meal Pay Plus parents know, they have a functionality where they can post a district message.

You said there are opportunities for parents to track exactly what their children are eating at school.

Absolutely. Through the purchase history feature ... parents can actually go online and see what their children are eating. It really allows parents to open up that dialogue with their kids about nutrition and exercise.

Is that what you're recommending now, especially with the holidays where everybody likes to eat a lot? Oh yeah. Absolutely. We actually get tons of calls from parents who say that originally they were giving their child $20 to $30 every week and they thought they were spending that on lunch. Once they found out from Meal Pay Plus and looked at the purchase history, they noticed that it wasn't being spent on lunch. They were either pocketing it and spending it at the mall on the weekend, or they were buying chips and soda every day.

How can you pocket the money if it's through Meal Pay Plus?

Through Meal Pay Plus you cannot. But the parents were giving their children cash at first. And even if you're not making payments through the program, you can still see what your kids are eating through Meal Pay Plus.

Do you find that a lot of times that's what kids are doing just because they don't think anybody is watching?

Oh yeah. ... A lot of times they don't understand the importance of nutrition yet. And parents are under the impression that if they give the child lunch money, they're going to get the meal at school. But schools and districts do offer various food items. And of course a snack is great to have every now and then. Parents can even do that as a reward for their children and keep track of that. ... It also places some responsibility back on the students ... how to make the right choices and keep track of things as they go. ...

Is there any other new information that you think people ought to be paying attention to as far as the way that they can use the system to better educate themselves and better educate their children about school lunch?

The Meal Pay Plus program allows you to deposit funds into a meal account or a general account. That oftentimes helps parents decide where their money is going. The meal account allows kids to purchase just a one-plated meal at the school. The general account allows them to purchase those extras and snacks and a la carte items. So the parent can deposit let's say $10 in the meal account and $2 or $3 in the general account to give them some leeway, maybe once a week or twice a week to get a snack. That's one of the ways parents can control that and have a discussion with their children.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:43am]


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