The click of plastic credit cards may join the jingle of coins in cafeterias this year when Howard County public schools become the first in Maryland to accept plastic money as payment for lunch.
Between Aug. 19 and Sept. 19, parents of county school children with VISA or MasterCards will be able to pay in advance for an entire year of midday meals. The schools also will accept cash, personal checks and money orders for the new annual meal plan.
"I hope this is going to be a trend," said Mary Klatko, the school system's food and nutrition services supervisor who conceived the plan after getting an anonymous suggestion from a parent who didn't like to scrounge for lunch money every morning.
"Everything else is moving so fast," Klatko said. "It seems like what we're doing is redundant, taking $1 every day. We're a little behind, technologically."
She said the credit-card payments would help families prepare their budgets and give schools a better idea of how many lunches they would need to serve.
Lunches for the 180-day school year will cost $175 for elementary school children and $218.75 for students in middle and high school. High schoolers with hefty appetites who opt for the "super lunch" would pay $306.25 for larger portions of fish and thicker burgers.
Lunches normally cost $1 in elementary schools and $1.25 in secondary schools. Officials said that, although the full-year meal plan costs slightly less than the purchasing of lunch every day, it's really not a discount plan because few students have perfect attendance.
Renee Arnold, supervisor of food services for Anne Arundel County schools, said parents there can pay for a week or month of lunches with cash or checks, but that credit cards never have been considered. No other public school systems in Maryland accept credit cards, either.
"We haven't addressed that because no one's ever stated a need for it," Arnold said.
Klatko said she agreed with the parent who contacted her and discussed the idea of credit-card payments with her staff before proposing it. So far, she has gotten positive feedback from parents and school officials.
"The convenience of VISA and MasterCard is a drawing card because everyone is dealing with them anyway," she said.
But she declined to predict how parents would respond to the plan, saying only that this year would be a trial period and that she believed it would become more popular next year.
The county will pay a small service charge for each credit card transaction, said Robert S. Lazarewicz, the school system's operations director.
A few parents contacted at random seemed cool to the idea.
Richard Dennis, who was enrolling his daughter at Northfield Elementary School yesterday, wasn't really sold on the idea of credit cards, but he liked the idea of a one-time payment for a year of lunches.
"I don't think kids should carry money -- especially at a very young age," he said. "There should be some kind of initial fee."
Diane McPhail, who has children at Waverly Elementary and Dunloggin Middle, shook her head at the idea.
"I just don't like the idea of putting something else on a credit card when you're always trying to pay it off," McPhail said. "That's carrying it a little too far."
Brittany Toby, a fourth-grader at Northfield, said she wouldn't go along with a plan that would commit her to school lunches every day. She only likes the meals with chicken nuggets or tacos.
"That won't work for us," said her mother, Pat Toby.
County schools will send letters to parents about the program during the first week of classes.
Parents paying with credit cards may do so over the phone. For information call 313-6743 or 313-6738.