There’s More to Vending Than Meets the Eye

The March 2017 edition of School Nutrition magazine invites readers to go “Beyond the Cafeteria.” In his article, “Pushing All the Buttons,” Freelance Writer Patrick White does just that. The piece uses testimonials from district directors to advocate for vending machines as a way to increase participation and boost access to reimbursable meals. In this bonus content, read more from those same directors as they discuss first, the appeal of new technological additions and second, which factors they applied when searching for new equipment and technology.

Electronic Age

Most schools look to put vending machines in places that are both convenient and popular as hang-out spots. Oddly, directors report that their reimbursable meal vending machines have proven to be successful for both social and not-so-social reasons.

At least one director, requesting anonymity, guessed that part of the reason that vending machines are popular with students is that they represent a way to get their food that’s more in keeping with how they live their lives: namely that the human interaction component has been replaced with an electronic screen.

“Maybe sometimes it’s just not ‘cool’ to go to the lunchroom,” adds Jessica Shelly of high school students. Not that a high schooler would likely call getting a vended meal “cool,” but for them it’s “acceptable,” she jokes.

In some Cincinnati schools, the only place there was room for the vending machines was in the lunchroom. “It’s funny to watch: we see kids actually line up to use the vending machine rather than going through the cafeteria line,” says Shelly, referring to the “technology draw” of the machines.

Shopping List

What factors go into choosing a reimbursable vending machine? In New York, Mark Bordeau is using units from STAR, which he says have worked out well and are, at the moment, the only machines he could find that are compatible with his POS system.

The machines offer some flexibility in the size and form of the meals, as well as the packaging that can be used. “We haven’t had any jams,” reports Bordeau. He has 10 machines in use currently and, on average, each machine has had to be reset (rebooted) about once. “That’s not excessive—they’ve been fairly reliable,” he says.

Cincinnati Schools are also using STAR machines. “One of the considerations in choosing which vending machine to go with was to make sure that it wasn’t the type that vended the milk item separately,” explains Jessica Shelly. “We wanted it to be easy for students to see which choice they wanted, and when they pressed the button, we wanted the entire meal package to be there for them. We didn’t want them to miss out on the opportunity to make sure they got their milk.”

Manistee Area Public Schools selected a Vend-ucation machine, both because it’s compatible with their POS system and because it accepts cash. Keri Carlson says she also appreciates the fact that she gets email alerts if there’s ever an instance where the vending machine gets out of the proper temperature range. “The machine actually alarms and shuts down in those cases—and it won’t sell,” she explains. “So it has excellent safeguards.”

At a large school that is spread out geographically, vending machines can be used to ensure students don’t have to walk long distances to get a meal, as Cincinnati’s Jessica Shelly described. In other cases, they can be placed strategically to bring the food to where the students prefer to hang out and socialize. That’s exactly what Bordeau did at one school, placing two machines in a large vestibule area where students congregate in the morning. “Kids want that 10 or 15 minutes of social time, so many of them aren’t going down to the cafeteria, because it’s time away from their friends. So, we brought the food to them,” he explains.

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