F4, C2 & D3. By using ID cards or PIN numbers, students can access online accounts to purchase combinations that make up reimbursable meals.
"I haven't eaten a vegetable since 1969."
— Jay Leno to Parade Magazine in it's annual What America Eats Survey.
Healthy vending programs—intended to help address the childhood obesity epidemic—are becoming increasingly popular as school districts adopt local school wellness policies and look to develop more healthful school environments. In some cases, schools are looking to the vending program to deliver more reimbursable meals to students.
In spite of their reputation as "junk food central," evidence is mounting that vending machines and healthy vending programs can be both healthful and profitable if run well.
"You must maintain a certain balance between the financial stability, the nutritional integrity and the political environment for a vending program to be successful in today's schools," says Leo Lesh, executive director of food and nutrition services at Denver Public Schools. "The bottom line is that a school's vending program needs to be both nutritionally and financially sound."
Vending at Vista
When Vista (CA) Unified School District opted to change the usual foods and beverages in its vending program, Child Nutrition Services (CNS) helped the district purchase vending machines that would offer healthier options and eventually provide reimbursable meals as well.
"The principals were very reluctant to change how they were doing business," says Enid Hohn, director of child nutrition services at VUSD. "They were accustomed to working with the bottling companies or outside third party vendors. One of my challenges was to convince the principals that they would continue to have vending revenue to fund school programs."
For Hohn, the proof was in the pudding. In the first year of the healthy vending program, the school generated $200,000 more in sales than the previous year. The selection was good, the prices were fair and the service was fast. In fact, vending generated so much business that when the school year started, CNS was refilling the machines three times a day.
In the Spring of 2005, CNS installed ServeSmart speedlines at both Vista High and Rancho Buena Vista, two other distrcit campuses. The goal was to create retail type kiosks that would attract and encourage students to purchase reimbursable meals.
"With the right packaging and the right merchandising we increased the number of reimbursable meals students were purchasing by 25% on each campus. And we have been able to sustain this increase since the beginning of the program," says Hohn.
For a detailed recap of Hohn's story, check out her blog at: www.vusd.k12.ca.us/cns/healthyvending.htm
Automating Reimbursable Meals
In hopes of delivering more subsided and reimbursable meals to qualifying students, schools, manufacturers and software companies are developing innovative technologies with specialized vending machines that allow students to build reimbursable meals without waiting in traditional lunch lines.
The Corpus Christi (TX) Independent School District (CCISD) piloted a reimbursable meal vending program this past summer. The pilot is part of a new program developed by a partnership that includes SL-Tech, CCISD, Wulitzer, inTeam, the National Dairy Council, and the Dole Food Company.
"It was a great testing ground," says Tami Cline, president of Cline Consulting, which worked on the project. "We were able to pilot the project in a controlled environment."
Branded "DeliZone by VendSMARTT", the program addresses many of the district's nutrition goals. These include vending nutritious breakfasts, lunches and snacks, as well as accessing meaningful financial reports. The turn-key solution will also allow the Food Services Department to expand the hours of operation as well as campus locations.
"The software and hardware vendors—SL-Tech and Wurlitzer—combined their developmental capabilities," says Cline. "We also consulted the National Dairy Council and others to draw on their experiences in marketing to children and consumers. Staff at the Gertrude Applebaum Food Production Center—CCISD's central production kitchen—combined their skills to identify attractive packaging that met the mechanical requirements of vending."
Director of Food Services Jodi Houston, and the districts nutrition consultant, Jean Fields, R.D., organized student focus groups and taste panels to determine what foods and beverages would be most popular. Menus were written and analyzed using USDA-approved Nutrient Standard Menu Planning software and evaluated for compliance with the Texas Public Schools Nutrition Policy.
"The vending machines have dual temperature capabilities so that beverages can be kept colder than food items," says Cline. "There is also an elevator tray which ensures foods are gently delivered to the student."
By vending reimbursable meals, CCISD hopes to capture a greater number of qualifying students. "When the pilot is extended to additional schools, the machines will be placed in high profile traffi c areas away from the serving line or outside of the cafés," says Cline. "We believe that will help them drive incremental business."
Expanding the Pilot
CCISD developed a stepby-step operations manual that will be distributed to other organizations interested in the program. The manual includes recipes, photographs, step-bystep directions, marketing tips and financial tools.
"Our experiences have been very educational and the more we can help others learn from them, the greater the good," says Houston. "Vending machines have a place in schools. And if we can offer healthful items with more convenience, why not do so?"
Four other districts will pilot the reimbursable machines for the second part of the 06-07 school year. Starting the first of the year DeliZone will be expanded to Mesa (AZ) Public Schools, Denver Public Schools, Shawnee (KS) Mission School District and Conroe (TX) Independent School District. Each school will receive 3 machines.
While reimbursable vending is an innovative solution, vending programs are often not under the jurisdiction of the foodservice department. In those instances, healthy vending programs can still survive.
"Vending is a unique opportunity to provide healthful offerings if school overcrowding or short lunch periods discourage students from receiving a healthful school meal in traditional lines," says Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough County (FL) Schools' general manager of student nutrition services. While Hillsborough's foodservice department does not manage the districts vending program, fresh fruit and vegetable options, among other nutritionally sound options, are available in the machines.
"Today's vending machines are much more advanced than past models," says Lesh. "They can transmit inventory levels, sales figures, out-of-service alerts and other data directly to a base computer."
These specialized vending machines are connected to the district's local network so that when a student enters his or her identification number, the student is recognized as either full price, free or reduced. The machine has both visual and automated cues to help students select the proper combination for a reimbursable meal. If they choose items that don't meet the requirement they are first asked to choose a different combination. If the student decides to proceed with his or her original selection, the machine will require the student to pay the a la carte price difference.
Students build reimbursable meals by selecting color coded items. By using ID cards or PIN numbers students access their online accounts or have the option of using cash for a la carte purchases. All transactional data is recorded meeting industry standard specifications and USDA mandated reporting requirements.
The machines have a built in function that will alert the managers if they malfunction. When and if they do malfunction, the machines turn themselves off so as not to vend unsafe foods. Priced around $5000, each machine can hold about 60 reimbursable meals.
"There are still some kinks to work out," says Houston, "but in the end, vending healthful foods and reimbursable meals can be an inventive—and profitable—solution for districts nationwide." — By Joanna LeFebvre
Each vended items developed by CCISD features a nutrition facts label.
SIDE ORDER AND A LA CARtE ITEMS: