- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Several area school systems are seeing sales from vending machines rise after replacing snack cakes and soda with granola bars and water, while other schools have been left with a sales slump.

Montgomery County Public Schools has seen mixed results since the school board in September set stricter nutritional standards for all food and drink sold in the schools, including from vending machines.

Most schools have seen a slight increase or decrease in vending machine sales after schools emptied soda and junk food from the machines and replaced them with low-fat and low-sugar snacks, milk, water and juice, said Kathy Lazor, director for the food and nutrition services division for the county’s schools.

Ms. Lazor would not give exact sales numbers, saying it was too soon to gauge the altered machines’ success. She also would not release past vending machine sales because the machines are operated by individual school and are not included in the school system’s general budget.

She did say the county’s pilot program, which placed healthy vending machines in three high schools from September 2003 to June 2004, had “positive results” in terms of feedback from students, but would not give sales figures.

But David Gordon, managing partner of the Beltsville company that supplies most of the county’s snack machines, said sales fell 15 percent during the pilot program.

“That was significantly better than what we expected,” said Mr. Gordon, who works at Monumental Vending, which also supplies snack machines for D.C. public schools.

The decision to reduce the amount of saturated fat and sugar in products sold in schools, often by replacing fatty foods with healthier and more expensive ones, has been prompted primarily from concern over increasing childhood obesity rates nationwide, school officials say.

About 15 percent of U.S. children are overweight or obese. The rate has more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the quest to make money on vending machines while keeping products nutritious has been difficult for schools nationwide, said Carol Johnson, nutrition services director for Seattle Public Schools. The system, which used to make $12,000 to $30,000 from soda contracts, is forecasting a loss in the thousands of dollars.

In Los Angeles, school officials are turning to fund-raisers that sell magazines, wrapping paper and candy bars after its junk-food ban reduced vending machine sales.

Mr. Gordon said the more nutritious snacks tend to be more expensive than their junk-food counterparts.

He said it was too early to estimate sales for seven D.C. middle and high schools that last month started a similar nutritional pilot program for vending machines. “But we’re not expecting bad things,” he said.

The District’s public schools made $41,288.94 from vending commissions in September, up 15 percent from $35,836.42 a year ago, according to the most recent data from the D.C. Public Schools food and nutrition services.

T.C. Williams High School, the only public school in Alexandria that has student vending machines, is netting a small income on its nutritional machines in the school’s cafeteria.

In the fall, the school set up three vending machines with higher nutritional standards. One machine sells milk products, one sells juice and water, and another sells snacks.

T.C. Williams will earn an estimated $200 to $300 each month, said Becky Domokos-Bays, the food and nutrition services director for Alexandria City Public Schools. The school had no continuously operating vending machines in the cafeteria before this year.

“The revenue stream will be nice, though I doubt we’ll get $10,000 from vending contracts like other schools do,” Ms. Bays said.

Arlington Public Schools, which has made changes such as adding more water and juice to its vending machines, is working to add milk to vending machines operated by the county’s food services group, said Sandra O’Connor, the school system’s food specialist.

Arlington made $87,872 from machines that are operated by individual schools for fiscal 2003, said Susan Robinson, assistant superintendent for finance and management services. Ms. Robinson did not have any figures for fiscal 2002 or other years because the school system does not keep regular reports on school-run vending machine sales.

The food services group for the county schools runs additional machines, earning $3,256 from them for the 2003-04 school year. That number fell 70 percent from the prior school year when the food services group made $10,999 in sales.

The sales drop came mainly from the group replacing its machines during the 2003-04 school year, Mrs. O’Connor said.

Fairfax County Public Schools has had nutritional standards for its vending machines, which mirror the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards, since the mid-1980s, said Penny McConnell, food and nutrition services director for the school system.

Vending machines with soft drinks or junk food operate only after school hours.

The vending machines are estimated to bring in $533,000 for this school year, a 37 percent increase from last year’s $389,000, Ms. McConnell said.

John White, spokesman for Prince George’s County Public Schools, said he was not aware of any major health initiatives by school principals to improve the nutrition of vending machine snacks.

Individual high schools made $1.32 million in vending sales from January to July 2003, a 4 percent drop from $1.38 million a year earlier.

The school system, which does not run any vending machines itself, is considering experimenting with its own machines with items such as milk and yogurt, in several schools next year, Mr. White said.

Plans are still in the early stages.

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