As 9-year-old Jessica D'Agostino approaches the cash register at her school cafeteria, she whips out plastic to pay for her meat loaf.
Though Visa and MasterCard have not yet descended upon elementary schools, children in the upscale town of Westport, Conn., are getting a lesson in automated payment systems.
A debit-card pilot at the Long Lots School has kids in kindergarten through fourth grade paying for peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches the same way their parents buy groceries at checkout lines.
"I feel good about having the card," said the savvy fourth grader. "It doesn't rip like the old lunch tickets did."
Card-based systems are gaining popularity in many public forums, such as stadiums, country fairs, and university campuses. They are said to reduce theft while improving inventory control and record keeping.
But few if any card pilots have gone as far down the age scale as the one in Westport.
"The kids understand the concept," said Howard Nelson, general manager of Daka Restaurants, the food-service contractor for Westport schools. "This is Westport. I bet some fourth graders have their own MasterCard."
In January the Long Lots School debit cards were issued to all 680 pupils. By May, 320 children were spending an aggregate $512 a day on lunches.
Mr. Nelson said the cards replaced a paper ticket system. Children would bring checks or cash to school each week in exchange for tickets, whose loss brought tears and, ultimately, free lunches.
Now an account is set up for each child, and parents replenish it as needed. Parents receive monthly statements of purchases, and letters are automatically generated when funds are low. If an account runs out of money, children still get lunch, but the school can track the sale for reimbursement.
Through the latest technology, the pupil's photo, stored digitally in the host computer, is displayed on a touch screen when the card is swiped. Each $6,000 electronic register comes with computer, software, cash drawer, printer, external floppy drive, scanner, and digital camera.
Mr. Nelson said the school benefits from "increased participation." Pupils who brought lunches from home now want to buy lunch so they can use the card, he said. The system also streamlines accounting and reporting to government agencies like the National School Lunch program.
Anthony Pinzone, business administrator for Westport's Board of Education, projected that 5,100 additional meals would be purchased, with a gain of $4,900 annually. With one register per school, the system can pay for itself in just over a year, he said.
For security, cards are distributed by teachers at lunchtime. Pupils hand the cards to cashiers who swipe them through and keep them. At the end of the day, the teachers retrieve the cards.
"Students like having their little piece of plastic," said Mary Misevich, assistant principal. "They really feel it's more efficient and easier to use."
"Cafeteria lines move more quickly, giving staff and kids longer to eat," said Mr. Pinzone.
The test has been so successful that the system has been approved for Coleytown and Kings Highway elementary schools, said Mr. Nelson.
"We're looking to assess the system after a year to determine whether to go into the middle and high schools," he said. "There's a lot of support from parents who are giving Johnny $20 to buy lunch and Johnny ends up spending it on cigarettes and gas."