MARIETTA, Ga. -- As Garin Hughes picks through his school-lunch burrito and unidentifiable apple-pear dessert, he has a secret.
Hidden underneath the eighth-grader's right leg is a chocolate cookie in shrink-wrapped plastic. That's the dessert he's really looking forward to.
In the past, his parents had no clue when Hughes bought a treat at school. Now, thanks to a new school-lunch monitoring system, they can check over the Internet and learn about that secret cookie.
Health officials hope it will increase parents' involvement in what their children eat at school. It's a concern because federal health data show that up to 30 percent of US children are either overweight or obese.
''My parents do care about what I eat. They try, like, to keep up with it," said Hughes, a 14-year-old student at Marietta Middle School.
Three school districts in the Atlanta area last week became the first in the country to offer the parental-monitoring option as part an electronic lunch payment system called Mealpay.com. The system was created by Horizon Software International of Loganville, Ga.
For two years, the payment system, used by 1,000 school districts in 21 states, has allowed parents to electronically prepay for student lunches. Students type in their identification number before the cafeteria cashier rings up each day's lunch bill. The bill is deducted from the student's account.
The system was initially designed as a convenient way to make sure children bought lunch without worrying that lunch money would get lost, spent on other things, or stolen.
However, these days, parents increasingly are interested in what their children eat away from home. It was requests from concerned parents that prompted Horizon Software to develop the online meal-monitoring option.
Under the system, parents can see all of a student's lunch purchases. Even lunches paid for in nickels and dimes, instead of the prepaid account, are recorded in the system, said Tina Bennett, program director.
''A parent could give a child $20 and within two days that money's gone. This allows them to see if they bought chips," Bennett said.
''What we're really hoping is to get parents' involvement, to let them know what's happening."
Mary Carol Eddleman looked into what her daughter at a Hoschton middle school was buying and found she was getting an extra 12-ounce can of juice each day, even when a 4-ounce bottle of juice came with lunch.
''That's about 150 extra calories a day. It's one thing if she did it occasionally, but she was getting in the habit of buying it every single day on top of lunch because her friends are drinking it," Eddleman said. ''They drink it down like a Coke."
Eddleman talked to her daughter, who has since switched to buying a bottle of water instead.