By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: May 23, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
At a small but growing number of American high schools, high-tech vending machines are becoming part cafeteria worker, part nutritionist and part ATM machine.
Sebastian River High School, a 1,960-student school in Sebastian, Fla., is on the forefront of turning school lunch lines into an automated window-shopping experience for kids. During the last school year, the school district's technology specialist installed four of the high-tech vending machines, called Horizon OneSource Healthy Vending, under a pilot program with its maker Horizon Software, which introduced the vending machines in 2006. The school, along with about a dozen school districts around the country, will add more machines this fall.
"My favorite thing about the machines is that they don't file grievances, can't call in sick and don't change temperatures," said Joe Clark, education technology specialist at the School District of Indian River, of which Sebastian River is a part.
Instead of standing in one of eight long lunch lines during a 30-minute break, students at Sebastian River can walk up to one of the refrigerated vending machines, punch in a PIN code and student ID number, and buy milk, a bag of sliced carrots and a turkey sandwich, among other options. The machine prompts students to make choices that complete a balanced diet under guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which officially approved the machines for use in schools on January 22. The school also calls the machines "healthy" because they don't sell carbonated soft drinks or fried and sugary snacks.
"That's really the heart of the technology: Kids can get a meal right out of the vending machine without standing in line, not just a snack or juice. They can get a salad, a hoagie, fruit, and that would count as a meal. So they get a healthy meal," said John Tatham, vending director for Atlanta-based Horizon.
Software installed in the refrigerated box connects the student IDs and purchase data to Horizon's point of sale servers, which automatically track students' prepaid account IDs, along with information on whether a student qualifies for free or discounted lunch rates based on household income. School districts get reimbursed by the government for a fraction of the discounted cost when they sell a balanced meal--under USDA rules, three of five of a bread, protein, dairy or fruit and vegetables--to low-income students.
Finally, and this is the selling point for parents who want oversight of their child's eating habits, parents can log onto a secure Web site, called MealPayPlus, to see what their child ate for lunch, or how they snacked on any given day. They can also add money to their child's account directly on the Web site.
School districts using the MealPayPlus software say calls from parents concerned about their child's eating habits have gone down dramatically after adopting the technology.
"Before (it), our office was handling five to 10 calls a day from parents concerned about their child's account, (such as) when did (he or she) eat last, or was a payment received? The phones are silent with MealPayPlus," Victor Donofrio, consulting food service manager for the Fairfield Suisun school district in Fairfield, Calif., wrote in an e-mail.
Certainly, the adoption of new technology in K-12 schools is notoriously slow, according to school administrators. Roughly eight school districts, including Indian River, Fairfield, and another in Colorado, are currently using the vending machines, along with Horizon's MealPayPlus software. But Tatham said that the company expects another handful of districts to buy the technology for the next school year. With USDA approval of the machines, the doors could open wider for the company's technology.
"Most schools were waiting for that approval, and it's opened the door up. But in K-12, things don't happen overnight, regardless of the technology," Tatham said.
School administrators say that the machines could help keep costs down in the face of limited budgets and cafeteria space. More importantly, school directors are trying to serve more students complete, healthy meals, especially as childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high.
For example, Clark said that his district only feeds 63 percent of its K-12 students, given that kids often want to socialize or don't have time to wait in long lines over a 30-minute break. It's physically impossible to serve them all, he said. Per machine, the school will serve an added 20 to 50 meals per day, and most of those students qualify for free meals, Clark said. "That's a good thing. I want to feed as many students as I can, and that's the whole purpose behind the reimbursable vending."
Clark said his district switched from unhealthy to healthy vending--from Twinkies to nuts--three years ago in response to childhood obesity. The new vending machines feed into that choice--giving kids the opportunity to buy chef salads, cut veggies, milk, fruit, whole wheat sandwiches, or any cold items students can buy in the cafeteria line.
The Fairfield Suisun school district installed one machine in April and plans to add more this fall. It put the machine in a school with a high number of low-income students, issuing ID cards with a bar code that when read by the vending machine reader, synchronizes to a Horizon meal account. (The cards don't include overt identification as to the student's lunch status so there is no stigma to using the machine. And the machines take cash.)
Donofrio said that the school has sold about 50 to 70 meals a day through the machine, and its overall number of meals served to students has risen fivefold. "The principal is happy as more students are being fed," he wrote in an e-mail.
But what about school bullies? Just like with bagged lunches, there are kids who steal other students PIN codes and student numbers, especially if they know they are buying at a free or discounted rate, according to school administrators. But to prevent this type of theft, the vending machines include a digital camera that takes photos of kids from various angles as they buy a meal. That way, the school can catch a thief.
"It's wonderful when we catch them," said Clark, who cited about 16 incidents this year.
The vending machines are a follow-up to Horizon's MealPayPlus system, a Web-based monitoring system for parents that's synced up to their kids' school food service. It lets students purchase meals in a similar way with ID cards or PIN codes, but through the cafeteria line. Since it launched in 2003, roughly 250 districts (up to 4,000 schools) have adopted the technology and more than 2.4 million parents have access to the Web site.
The machines can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000 each, depending on the type. A smaller snack machine, for example, serving baked chips and juice, will include less complex systems and cost less. The full-service vending machines, with reimbursable meals, cost more. But to offset the price, schools can add the software to existing vending machines or trade in old machines toward the cost of a new one.
Clark estimated the cost of installing a new serving line in a cafeteria at between $25,000 and $30,000, plus a computer, a cashier and a serving person. Most of the time the school doesn't have the room to add another line, he said.
"I see it as when they first came out with auto cash registers for food service. This is that kind of leap in tech for a school district," he added.Send insights or tips on this topic to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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