It was in 1998 that Denver Public Schools first sought to consolidate all its vending under the foodservice department. Until then, each principal had his or her own arrangement with vendors, typically with one contract for soft drinks and one for snacks.
“Our first step was to consolidate the beverage programs under a single contract” says Lesh. “The principals got a better deal than they had before, and this helped when we raised the idea of consolidating the snack vending.”
DPS put out an RFP for an overall contract on the snack side, “and we also competed for it ourselves,” Lesh says. The volumes were high enough that the district made a decision to get into the vending business, leasing machines and hiring maintenance personnel.
Snack sales were all a la carte and sold mostly in high schools. The vending machines were located in hallways and there were no restrictions on what could be sold. Snacks were largely the same items sold in cafeteria a la carte lines, but traditional carbonated soft drinks were permitted (timers were used to ensure these were not sold competitively during meal periods).
“The big change came when we decided we should be selling more nutritious foods in the program,” says Lesh. “This was several years before all the publicity about vending got so much attention and before the wellness policy requirements came along. We just believed that as a food and nutrition department, our vended items ought to fit the same profile our cafeteria food did.”
The product mix was modified in stages, beginning with a move away from candy, replacing traditional chips with baked chips, and so on. Lesh says that while there was an initial falloff in sales during the transition, volume returned over time, especially as the department learned to introduce and rotate new selections on a regular basis.
When Lesh decided to experiment with the offer vs. serve vending model, he applied to the Colorado state school authority for a variance to permit the sale of vended reimbursable meals during extended hours. The pilot program itself was partly funded by School Link Technology, DPS' software vendor, Wurlitzer and Western Dairy, a local distributor.
“With block schedules, early and late starts and so on, there are always kids who have not gotten a meal and are hungry in the afternoon,” he says. “Now they have the chance to get a reimbursable meal until 4 p.m.” Between January and June of last year, the system added sales of about 500 reimbursable meals a month at Montebello, where the three specially outfitted machines are located.
Students enter their six-digit ID codes and select a combination of items to purchase. The software calculates the price based on whether it complies with reimbursable guidelines; it also interfaces with the school's POS system and knows if a customer is eligible for a reimbursable meal or has already obtained one in a cafeteria line.
Debit card credit can be used to purchase the items if they comprise a reimbursable meal. If not, cash is required. Lesh says they also offer a small, free bag of baked chips with every reimbursable meal.
“It's another incentive to take a reimbursable meal,” he says. “If they don't, they have to pay cashfor the chips.”