In a community east of Baton Rouge, junior high and high school students queue up at vending machines for lunch. But these machines, located at four schools that are part of Livingston Parish Public Schools, don’t dispense candy bars or soda; they hold clamshell-clad meal options made on site.
Sommer Purvis, child nutrition director, says the district purchased four vending machines during the pandemic lockdown in preparation for school re-openings. They planned on using them to deliver lunches to older students safely.
The machines turned out to be more than convenient. They’re so popular with students that the district has incorporated them into their meal system — and they’re planning to purchase more.
Their popularity is due, in part, to the expansion of lunch options for students and staff. The machines provide multiple offerings on the days they’re in service (three to five days per week, depending on the location). These are in addition to regular cafeteria service.
Photo credit: Livingston Parish Public Schools
Photo: Vending machines are “trendy,” says Sommer Purvis, child nutrition director, and have contributed to a bump in the district’s meal numbers.
“They love options,” says program coordinator Chancy Vaughn. “The more options, the better.”
Vending machines are “trendy,” Purvis says, and have contributed to a bump in their meal numbers. Last year, breakfast participation climbed by 3.5 percent and lunch participation by 7 percent, she says. This school year, breakfast numbers are holding steady so far and lunch participation is continuing to rise.
Vending machines help “attract a group of students who may never actually eat school cafeteria food because they feel that there’s a negative stigma,” she says, adding that the machines “not only help improve the image of the child nutrition department but give a variety of new options that students may be more comfortable with” than a typical cafeteria setting.
Options vary daily and by site. From a central production list, site managers decide exactly how to stock the machines, based on student preferences.
A sample list includes turkey or ham croissant sandwiches with American or pepper jack cheese, a chicken and bacon flatbread sandwich and a chicken fajita salad. Other menus include yogurt parfaits, sandwich wraps, chicken salad, chef’s salad and other iterations of popular meals. The district has found that it’s an efficient way to offer a second, third, fourth or even fifth menu option without expanding staffing.
The district regularly solicits student feedback using a survey linked with a QR code printed on lunch labels. Because of one such survey, the district added Uncrustables sandwiches, a pre-packaged product, to the production list. It’s the only meal option they don’t make in-house.
Each lunch includes a whole piece of fruit, raw vegetables (such as carrots, celery or broccoli florets) and a snack such as chips, pretzels or crackers. Reimbursable meals include a carton of milk. (Not all meals contain milk, to cut back on waste.) Machines are clearly marked with signs alerting students to allergens.
Nutrition staff prepare meals one or two days in advance and package them in 9x9-inch clamshells. They load meals into the refrigerated machines as needed for meal service.
Photo credit: Livingston Parish Public Schools
Photo: Three to five options are available at a time in the vending machines and include sandwiches and salads that are made on site.
The schools qualify for the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) so meals are free for students, who access the meals by punching their student identification number into the machine’s keypad, a requirement that keeps students from double-dipping.
Vaughn says they offer a minimum of three and a maximum of five meal options in the vending machines at a time. Managers decide not only what to serve but when to include the vending machines in the day’s offerings. On days when a popular hot lunch is on tap, such as their yearly Thanksgiving meal, managers tend to forego vending options. The same goes for days with altered schedules.
The flexibility of the system also helps the nutrition program distribute meals more quickly, giving students more time to eat. One of the schools in the vending program has just 17 minutes for lunch; Purvis estimates that the average lunch period among the four schools is 22 minutes.
Purvis advises new adopters to plan well and anticipate roadblocks. The machines have wireless capability, for instance, but operate more smoothly with a hard line and a dedicated internet outlet. And she stresses the importance of having a backup plan for perishable ingredients in case a power outage or some other circumstances prevents the machines from operating.
Overall, the program has been a success and serves students who, today, “have very sophisticated palates. What used to work in a traditional school cafeteria doesn’t attract students the way that it used to.” This works, Purvis says, because, “it’s something students are familiar with.”