5 considerations for success with school vending machines

A DA Quick Resource Guide to managing vending machines in schools for meals and snacks

In the world of school vending, the machines are getting smarter, schools are increasingly using them to dispense reimbursable meals, and the tug of war continues between the healthful versus popular snacks that students can buy from them.

The use of vending machines in schools to dispense quick meals that qualify for USDA reimbursement is one of the fastest-growing trends in the sector, says Jim Dillingham, CEO of Vend-ucation, a company that provides vending services to school districts.

These cash-free machines are connected to the school’s point-of-sale accounting system. A student can access the food with their personal ID, and the cost—full, reduced or free—is debited from their school lunch account.

Common items include chef salads, sandwiches, healthful snacks, milk and bottled water, and many schools enlist vocational and special education students to help stock and maintain the machines, Dillingham says.

Here are five things to consider for maximizing the return on investment for your vending machines.

1. Machine location can boost usage. Reimbursable meal vending machines don’t necessarily need to be in or near the cafeteria. Placing them near the school entrance can increase participation in breakfast programs, and installing them near the gym can make them accessible to student-athletes returning from after-school practices or games.

2. Newer and smarter is better. If your snack vending machines are showing their age, consider working with your vending company to replace them with newer models that may be more enticing to tech-savvy students. Cashless payment options, including Apple Pay and Android Pay, are a must. Also, look for machines with remote monitoring technology, so the vending partner or district food services coordinator can keep the machines fully stocked. For security purposes, consider machines that can record who opens them and when.

3. The DIY question. Give careful consideration to the costs and benefits associated with operating your own snack vending machines or working with a third party. Self-operated machines give districts greater control over food selection and pricing, and usually provide more revenue. But partnering with a vending company can be simpler and usually includes a revenue-sharing arrangement.

4. Choose the right vending partner. If you do decide to work with a vending partner, large national vending companies may offer districts sign-up bonuses and generous revenue-sharing arrangements, but snack selection may be limited. Smaller local vending companies generally offer more flexible contracts, personalized customer service and more regionally focused food choices, says Andre Bramwell, owner of Candyman Vending Service, a Houston-based vending company.

5. Kids will buy nutritious snacks, but it’s all in the presentation. A whole-grain muffin placed in a vending machine between the M&M’s and the potato chips probably won’t be a big mover. But a kid-friendly machine stocked with an assortment of healthful choices, such as those provided to schools by Healthy You Vending, can help your students make better snacking decisions.

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