By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008
For the first time, video cameras will monitor Fairfax County high school cafeterias this fall to keep students from pilfering chicken wraps or veggie burgers in the lunch line.
The region's largest school system is turning to video surveillance, already widely used on school buses and outside school buildings, to combat what officials say has become a pervasive problem: food theft. The school system's food and nutrition services department estimated that $1.2 million worth of prepared food was lifted from cafeterias in the past school year.
Board members decided last month that they could no longer swallow such losses, given a $150 million school budget shortfall and rising food prices. They approved a one-year tryout for cafeteria cameras at Annandale, Mount Vernon and Westfield high schools and Lake Braddock, Robinson and South County secondary schools.
Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services, said she hopes the cameras will curb theft and send a message to students that stealing from the cafeteria is no less serious than shoplifting from a store. "I would hate for them to make this a habit and take it into the community," she said. "They could get themselves into some serious situations that could impact their futures."
Pocketing cookies, paying for one pizza while covering up another or downing a bag of french fries before the line reaches the cashier are common in school cafeterias, although there is little hard data documenting theft, said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit group based in Alexandria. He said a handful of school systems have used cameras, real or pretend, to address the problem.
School food service officials said they try to limit opportunities to steal by keeping frequently swiped items, such as juice bottles or chips, off open shelves and behind the cashier. Many schools routinely assign staff members to monitor the lunch line.
"Theft is always a consideration when you are working with adolescents, cash, high value food and some employees earning near the minimum wage," Daniel Townsend, director of food and nutrition services for Prince George's County schools, wrote in an e-mail.
Employee theft in cafeterias is a more publicized crime. But McConnell said the $1.2 million loss in Fairfax counts only prepared food that went out on the serving line, not food that might have been stolen after hours. The loss total is significant for an annual food department budget of $74 million.
In the past school year, McConnell conducted an anonymous survey of 10,000 high school students during lunch. Almost 9 percent said they had taken food without paying.
Stealing food is pervasive throughout the county, McConnell said, in high- and low-income areas alike. In an April issue of the McLean High School student newspaper, a reporter watched eight students stealing food during one lunch period. According to the story, one student shrugged after being spotted; another smiled.
Some parents are skeptical that so much dollar loss can be tied to students. "I think there are an awful lot of mistakes that are made" in a large, complicated system, said Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. For instance, she said, she has sent money to school for her children's lunch accounts that hasn't been logged correctly.
Greg Young, 18, who graduated from Annandale High in June, said video cameras would not prevent one of the most common forms of theft he observed: buying food with cafeteria account numbers stolen from other students. "It's very, very easy for that to happen," he said.
Fairfax school cafeterias, which serve about 140,000 student customers in 159 facilities, are called "Energy Zones," and they are marketed like restaurants, with special packaging and offerings similar to those found in a food court, such as panini or wraps. But the price is much lower: For $2.50, high school students can choose among a wide variety of entrees and side dishes.
Most items are available for self-service, in part to make cafeteria food seem more appealing and less institutional, McConnell said. Although many school food programs elsewhere have had trouble attracting customers, sales are up in Fairfax. So is theft.
Most commonly stolen are sandwiches, such as cheeseburgers or ham-and-cheese croissants, because they are individually wrapped and easy to pocket, she said. Other tempting items are cans of juice, fruit, yogurt or "potatoes of any kind" -- tater tots, fries or wedges, McConnell said. She has observed students passing food back to others or kicking it under the serving line to a waiting friend. "They can be very creative," she said.
The problem is aggravated at crowded schools, which shuffle as many as 1,800 students through lunch lines in 40 minutes.
McConnell first estimated food lost in 2001 at $750,000. In recent years, her department has made several attempts to limit poaching. Officials have installed convenience-store-style mirrors and offered employees free meals in exchange for lunchtime supervision. They also tried to limit the number of students who come through at once and teamed up with the student government to produce public service announcements and posters. "Call it what you want . . . 'Lifting' 'Ripping Off' . . . It's stealing and it hurts everyone," reads one sign in school hallways.
Finally, urged by some principals, McConnell asked the board for cameras. On July 24, the board approved a revision of its video surveillance policy by a 10 to 2 vote. The $60,000 cost for the cameras will be paid for by the food services department, which is supported by food sales and federal and state aid.
The previous policy limited camera use to building exteriors, school buses and storage spaces containing high-priced equipment. Board members debated the consequences of expanding the scope of surveillance.
Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) opposed the measure, citing concerns that lunch-line cameras would send a message that "it's okay for the government to watch them at all times." The other dissenter was James L. Raney (At Large).
Signs advising students of the cameras will be posted throughout the cafeteria, and video monitors will be stationed along lunch lines so that students can see images of themselves.
The measure requires school officials to recommend policies for how the images should be secured and ultimately destroyed. "I don't want a situation where one of our kids makes a mistake, and then they are 25 years old, applying for a job and somehow that image ends up on YouTube," said Martina A. Hone (At Large).
Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) echoed concerns about privacy but supported the measure. "Clearly, we cannot stand by and watch as more than $1 million worth of items are stolen, in essence, from our children," she said.