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Schools Boost Reimbursable Meal Use With Star Food System

Posted On: 11/30/2008

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FORT LAUDERDALE, FL -- VE South's Star Food program for school foodservices has made a name for itself by enabling schools to give their students the option of bypassing the lunch line and grabbing a meal that complies with USDA's regulations for reimbursement -- from a vending machine.

The pace at which schools are adopting the program is accelerating nationwide, according to the Florida distributorship. Placements this year are up 100% over total sales in 2007.

The versatile refrigerated Star Food machine, capable of vending full-priced, discounted and free meals, is currently a key component of foodservice programs in schools in 14 states across the country.

According to VE South vice-president and general manager Joe Gilbert, the Star Food program not only provides students fast access to breakfast, lunch and after-school meals; equally important, schools that have adopted it also have seen an average increase in sales of 25%.

"That lift is with existing personnel, with no increase in labor expense," Gilbert reported. "The machine generally pays for itself within a year to 18 months."

Anything that increases student participation in the reimbursable meals program without increasing support costs is valuable to school foodservice authorities, Gilbert pointed out. "The more kids they feed, the more revenue they generate," he explained. "Star Food  allows them to put machines in various areas of campus -- by the gym, or by outside patios with seating areas in warm climates. The vending machines are generally a much more convenient and appealing option than the lunchroom, so more kids are buying meals."

The federally funded USDA Reimbursable Meal Program gives participating schools cash subsidies and donated commodities for each meal served. To qualify, a school must provide eligible students with free or reduced-priced breakfast or lunch meals that meet specific nutrition guidelines in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Each reimbursable meal must include a combination of meat/meat alternative, bread/grain, fruit/vegetable and milk. The program reimburses the schools on a sliding scale for meals provided to qualifying students; the qualification is based on family income criteria.

The Star Food refrigerated food machine, manufactured in Italy by N&W Global Vending, dispenses a complete pre-packaged USDA-compliant reimbursable meal (breakfast, lunch or snack) to eligible high school and middle school children in less than 20 seconds.

Easily customized to interface with each school's existing point-of-sale system, Star Food uses a PIN keypad and a barcode reader or biometric finger scanner to identify the purchaser and apply the appropriate vend price, or to dispense the meal free of charge. This complies with the federal requirement that students provide two forms of identification. The machine also can  accommodate conventional coin and banknote payment systems.

"Anyone can sell a machine," Gilbert pointed out. "We sell a plug-and-play solution because we know schools are not in the vending business, and there's no room for error when it comes to compliance with the USDA requirements in order for them to be reimbursed.

"We make sure integration with their POS system is seamless and we have agents all over the country who deliver and place the machines and gather school personnel to give them a tutorial," the industry veteran added. "Then, they get three free service calls during the first year, and a service contract is available with a national company for continued service, so there is no burden on them to operate the machine."

Gilbert attributes Star Food's growing success to the fact that school cafeterias at present only feed an average of 38% of the eligible students due to labor shortages, shorter lunch periods and the inability to draw students in for meals. With the Star Food Solution, he said, schools can feed approximately twice as many kids without increasing the burden on cafeterias that already are operating beyond designed capacity. What's more, he added, as the economy continues to weaken, the government has reduced eligibility standards, so more and more parents are choosing to sign up their children for USDA-reimbursable meals at school.

One success story Gilbert cited is a school in Burke County, GA, with a population of 1,200 students that was feeding 300 kids per day before implementing the Star Food program. After installing two of the units in 2007, the school saw 150 to 300 more meals being served each day, and growth has continued throughout 2008. The extra revenue from the additional sales provided enough income to pay for the machine in less than six months, the VE South vice-president told VT.

To support the program's expansion, VE South has partnered with Kraft and local dairy councils to subsidize the cost of the Star Food machines for schools that feature their products in them. Gilbert added that he is in talks with several other major food companies regarding potential partnerships, and is seeking a celebrity sports personality to serve as a spokesman for Star Food to further encourage students to patronize the machines.

Details of the Star Food program are available online at reimbursablemeals.com, or by calling (877) 857-FOOD.