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New vending program reinvents school lunch

Virginia high school pilots vending machines with fresh reimbursable meals and a la carte options, expands to a second location.

At the Academies of Loudoun, the school day is structured so there’s only one lunch period. But the good news is, the dining team was able to help build the kitchen—part of a new building—with that in mind.

“We knew from day one we’d have just one lunch period,” says Stefanie Dove, RDN SNS, Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools (LCPS). “When we were planning how to do meal service, the question was, ‘How can we get all the students through the line in a short amount of time?’”

The answer has been severalfold. Lunch is available on two levels, one more traditional and another a coffee/grab-and-go plus some hot foods setup. The building is designed with comfortable seating and nooks throughout, so lunch can be enjoyed just about anywhere.

Although the school is CTE (career and technology education) and STEP-based, meaning lots of busy, time-crunched kids, “we’re adamant about providing an opportunity to sit down and enjoy meals…that’s the struggle,” Dove says.

academies_vending_2.jpeg.pngThe lunch-crunch solutions have continued to evolve, and soon another one came up: vending machines stocked with fresh, signature options.

“We were looking for more ways to speed lines and get more participation,” says Dr. Becky Bays, RD, SNS, director of school nutrition at LCPS. Cashless vending machines debuted at the Academies of Loudoun, which is also the site of the Café + Teria program, a sous vide, customizable fast-casual concept.

Focus group data guided the vending menu, which includes a variety of school lunch-compliant meal options and a la carte items, from sub sandwiches with fresh fruit to bagels to yogurt parfait bundles to smoothies and snacky treats like chicken ranch snack wraps.  

“We’re always getting feedback and asking what they’d like to see in there,” Dove says. “As operators, we can sit here and say what we’d like to see in a vending machine. But students are the driving force of our program.”

Feedback is made easy (and quantifiable) via electronic surveys, “and we take our iPads out into the cafeteria with surveys on them,” Dove says, adding that links to surveys in the dining team’s Instagram bio allows students to take surveys from their phones, “and we get real-time data that way…With any dining program you need to have metrics to support new concepts coming down the line.”

Through feedback, Bays and Dove found an important point with the vending machines was serving items that couldn’t be found elsewhere in the school.

“One thing we’ve found is that they want exclusivity in the vending machines; they want to know that what they’re getting in the vending machine is different from what they can get on the line,” Dove says. “And it’s also just the speed. We’ve been marketing that as ‘skip the line.’”

To get into the vending machines, students enter their birth date and their lunch number, select what they want, slide the bay open and take it out. This setup has the built-in benefit of offering milk and veggies with lunch, which most kids take because it’s there, Dove says.

Labeling on the food continues the marketing piece of the project and also alerts students to allergens. In addition, they can find menus online for all dining locations, and that now includes what’s in the vending machines as well.

Also, for students receiving free-and-reduced lunch, the vending machines aren’t off-limits, which some were concerned about at first. “But to see their eyes light up because they can use this…They don’t have the luxury of disposable income, so this is something new they can get.”

LCPS expanded the program to another school, and Dove says there are plans to keep expanding, “as administrators see the buzz going on” with vending. “They have to maximize instruction time, and in cases when they can’t add another lunch shift, this helps get kids through the line faster.”

TAGS: Marketing
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