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A Closer Look At Vending Machines

Our piece, Dole Introduces Unique Vending Machine Concept, detailed how new vending technology was being used in a pilot program to increase consumption of produce and healthy foods for school age children. In order to learn more about how this program is playing out in real time, we spoke to the foodservice director at one of the five pilot school districts:

Jody Houston
Director for Foodservices
Corpus Christi Independent School District
Corpus Christi, Texas

Q: With your hands-on experience, could you tell us how the healthy vending pilot in your school district has been working on the ground?

A: We’ve seen great progress over the past year. Right now, we don’t have a huge amount of excess traffic. We’ve placed the machine in the cafeteria, which has been advantageous from a logistical standpoint as we iron out issues during the pilot stages, but I don’t think it’s the ideal place to generate incremental sales.

The machine eventually needs to be in a different location to maximize its potential. When it’s in the cafeteria, we can trouble shoot, make sure it’s working and refill it easily. The front of the machine opens, then a tray with spirals pulls out and the employee can slide items in quite easily.

Q: Are the vending products being prepared and packaged right there on site?

A: We work out of a central kitchen that prepares our salads, sandwiches and wraps. It’s very easy to make the products in the morning that go into the machines and ship them to the schools to be served for breakfast that morning and for lunch that afternoon. We switch the products out daily. They are made and packaged here fresh each day.

Q: How are menu items determined? Are consistent specifications followed?

A: We have a food advisory team that includes students from five different schools, as well as assistant principals and cafeteria managers. We have breakfast together and talk about the menus, getting feedback from the kids on what they’d like to see and buy. Also, students are instrumental in telling us what price points, how they use the machine, whether they buy a la cart or part of lunch, etc.

Q: How does procurement work?

A: We have purchasing contracts with fresh produce venders for items like apples, oranges and grapes, as well as with meat and frozen food companies. We put apples and oranges in the machines whole. The orange rolls out into a smart waiter basket. We handle items that require additional preparation work in house.

Q: What about items like Dole bananas that have been designed with special single serve cellophane sleeves?

A: We purchase the sleeves separately and package the bananas in our central kitchen. We buy the packaging materials along with all the raw components and then put the products together.

Since we’re just doing a test, we don’t have all the arrangements worked out. We are continuing to use the companies and equipment we have now, but in the future for a turnkey solution that could change.

We do have a few extra products that we put into the machine that are not in our regular cafeteria program, but we use the same packaging procedures we have in place for products in schools already.

We are perfecting the whole procedure of how employees should be preparing product and how it looks in the package, so other districts can pick up the process and use it.

Q: What products have been the most successful?

A: Smucker’s Uncrustable sandwiches have been very popular, and we are not serving them on our lunch line. We make different wraps and salads. Our lettuce, cheese, and turkey items sell well, and students seem to gravitate to flavors like jalapeno and garlic. Another hit is the Frusion, a yogurt-style smoothie. We place the products in the machine once a day for breakfast as well as lunch. We’ve been surprised to see that students at lunch will buy breakfast cereals with milk.

Q: Are you incorporating the student card identification system into the pilot?

A: The machine works like a cash register, which is another good reason we do it in the cafeteria now. We are running the vending machines in two schools now. Approximately 50 students are buying from it, and of that 15 to 20 are reimbursable meals. The machine doesn’t have huge sales now, but we’re optimistic.

We haven’t tested the ID card system yet. Our students put in their pin number. They use their pin number in the lunch line anyway. The vending machine payment method is the same concept to what they already do now, so it’s been a seamless transition with no learning curve. We do have one school that uses ID cards. When we’ve tried ID cards in certain schools, we’ve run into problems. Some students don’t wear their ID cards and forget to bring them at lunch time.

Q: What is your sense of the project’s future?

A: It’s not cheap to buy the machine. Frankly, since I’ve been testing, I haven’t put a penny toward the machine.

I think we will eventually have more play on the machine when it’s not in the cafeteria. We’re drawing from the same students in the cafeteria line. Students need to have access to the machine at all times of day. Also, wouldn’t it be great in the evenings, when students are playing volleyball or basketball to grab a healthy snack instead of relying on concession stands? They’d be able to draw from their accounts. I think the machine will be a success once it catches on without any special attention on our part.

Sounds like they are trying, but there are still bugs to be worked out. Certainly placement of the machine is key. Question: Is the purpose of the machine to supplement the breakfast or lunch cafeteria service or is it to provide anytime snacks? There may be a place for both. Many school cafeterias seem overwhelmed and have lengthy lines so kids might welcome the chance to self-serve lunch, just the way adults welcome the chance to skip the airline desk and go to a self-serve machine.

Students who stay after school for athletics, play rehearsal, band, orchestra, clubs or meetings would also welcome a chance to buy good food during off hours.

It is a little disturbing to learn about Smucker’s Uncrustable’s being a best seller. It is not the worst thing a child could eat, but it is not a salad either. One wonders if these machines wouldn’t do better totally divorced from the school cafeteria. If a distribution method could be developed, the machines could be owned by a company such as Dole and, with such ownership, Dole could restrict what is allowed in the machines.

Coke machines only sell Coke products, Good Humor machines only sell Good Humor brand ice cream. Maybe there should be a Dole machine in every school?

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