[School] Food For Thought

Posted On: 10/14/2014

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TAGS: Vending Times, Vending Times editorial, vending industry, coin-op, vending machine, coin machine business, office coffee service, vending machine operator, micro markets, Alicia Lavay, LinkedIn discussion, new school lunch standards, healthy vending, school vending rules, Star Food

Alicia Lavay, vending

In a recent LinkedIn discussion, the question was raised: do the new school lunch standards make kids healthier or hungrier? This is hardly a new topic. You may recall an outbreak of YouTube videos created by high school students to dramatize their complaint that the new "healthier" school menus are starving them. The problem, which I addressed here several months ago, is that these menus were designed by well-meaning people with very fragmentary information. Horrified by stories about obese youngsters, they've ignored the needs of the kids whose weights are normal and who are regularly active.

One of the complaints I read was that the "healthier" food simply doesn't taste good. "I like that they are offering healthier choices, but there is a big downfall," said one concerned participant, herself a vending operator. "My daughter is now in high school, and they are offering lunches with whole grains. Many kids don't like this and take the food, eat very little and throw the rest away." Thus, she said, the students are not being nourished, and this impairs their ability to learn. She added that the school still has vending machines that offer conventional snacks, so the students substitute chips for the school lunch. "If you are going to offer a healthier lunch at school, let's have it at least taste good," she urged. "Many of the meals are not prepared well either, which is another reason they don't want to eat them." She concluded by contending that she does not want the government deciding what she, or anyone else, should eat.

It's interesting to note that rates of adult obesity increased in six U.S. states and fell in none last year. These conclusions were reported by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and were based on federal government data. They suggest that the problem may be worsening, despite widespread publicity about the nation's obesity epidemic and the countless programs devised to remedy it.

Most would agree that obesity needs to be dealt with at home, not in school, and that lack of physical activity is another leading contributor to this epidemic. We also know that variety is an important benefit that free enterprise confers on consumers and breadth of choice is vital to the future of our business. The government should not be in the business of trying to rank wholesome foods into better and worse. But all this propaganda and government intervention doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, so what can be done about it? Perhaps instead of viewing it as an obstacle, we should view it as an opportunity.

There seem to be two components to the school lunch problem. One is preparing good-tasting, satisfying meals that meet the nutritional requirements, and this should be something that the foodservice profession can do, in conjunction with informed parents who can work through their elected officials to make sure those requirements actually meet students' caloric needs while delivering the desired nutritional balance. The other component, much less discussed, is that today's school schedules often don't give students enough time to work their way through long lines in the cafeteria.

Vending machines surely offer a practical solution here. VE South's Star Food healthy vending program provides a model for feeding students. Star Food Express machines integrate with a school's computer and feature a user interface that complies with federal requirements for providing full, discounted and free meals to children. So they are designed for school foodservices that self-operate. But the machines' convenience and ease of use have made them a favorite among students. They serve healthy, reimbursable, multi-component meals in less than 20 seconds. According to Star Food's Joe Gilbert, the "high-tech and high-touch" concept works for students; and it works for schools, too, by better employing the skills of their nutrition staffs and offering meal opportunities at times when the cafeteria is closed.

There are two things that a good full-line vending operator does very well: run "clean, filled and working" machines, and stock them with products that the customers want to buy. The industry has a wealth of experience and specialized skills that might be tapped by the designers of a school lunch, breakfast and supplementary-meals program.

The key, though, is that those designers would have to start regarding the students whom they wish to feed as customers, not as patients or guinea pigs for nutritional experiments. Given that reorientation, they might find the vending industry a willing and capable partner. I think it's time they got started.