South High vending machines get makeover

School promotes nutritious snacks, dumping junk food from snack machines

South High School is swapping junk food for more nutritious snacks in its vending machines as part of a districtwide effort to improve students' health and well-being.

This fall, candy, fried chips, soda and other longtime vending machine staples at South were replaced by low-fat crackers, baked chips, oranges, apples, yogurt, sandwiches, string cheese, nuts and more.

The school is on the cutting edge of a push for healthier foods in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) that focuses on the lunchroom but extends even to vended items. North High School is also in the process of revamping its food vending policies. Last year, North got rid of sugar-laden sodas in favor of water and juice.

A districtwide committee worked specifically with South last year to pick out the low-calorie choices the school is currently experimenting with in its vending machines as a model for other schools. South Principal Linda Nelson said the automated dispensers mainly serve the hundreds of children who stay after school for extracurricular activities.

The machines, which are located prominently near the school's front doors, operate on timers that prevent access to snacks during school hours. That way, their featured items don't interfere with the healthier option of school lunch.

But it's important to provide some kind of nourishment for the students who end up eating dinner out of the vending machines, she said.

Additionally, providing higher quality munchies takes aim at community concerns about the rise in childhood obesity, cavities, fatigue and other problems that are linked to fatty treats.

Similarly, school districts all over the country are trying to provide healthier fare in addition to increased physical activity for students. Although some children at South have groaned about the loss of the so-called &#8220good stuff” at lunch (especially bemoaning the absence of pizza) and sweets in vending machines, some school officials say their efforts are starting to pay off.

They say students are making smarter choices about what they eat. Community Education Director Jean Dutcher, who remains on-site for afterschool activities most days, said providing more nutritious items in the vending machines has had a positive impact.

&#8220The goal is that they make better choices instead of going for the habit of chips that's so ingrained. It's doing well. We're really pleased to see how many salads and sandwiches go out the door,” she said, admitting that her favorite snack is an apple and cream cheese yogurt.

A new wellness policy

The snacks in the vending machine are low fat, and many items come in smaller portions than did previous choices, such as NutraGrain Bars instead of Skittles. Last year, a committee called Healthy Steps comprised of South staff, community members and students formed as part of a federal grant to address the vending machine selection.

It's part of a larger initiative, Steps to a Healthier Minnesota, that's collaborating with several other school districts in the state. Julie Danzal, a Steps staffer who is leading vending machine changes at South said the objective is to &#8220help Americans live longer, better and healthier” by reducing the incidence of diabetes and asthma and assisting those who are overweight to lose extra pounds.

They referred to stringent guidelines that restrict calories, sugar content and serving size. It's aligned with MPS' new wellness policy that the School Board adopted this summer.

The policy tackles school lunch, exercise and snacks students bring in from home, among other things. Under the new policy, most changes have occurred in the lunchroom.

One major difference is that the district's Nutrition Center now creates lunch menus rather than individual schools, which had determined them prior to this year.

Eleanor Coleman, chief of Student Support, Family and Community Engagement for MPS, said the wellness policy promotes healthy learners. Coleman said encouraging students to be energetic and focused means heightening awareness about eating healthy. &#8220It's a matter of educating all of us and making sure we're making good decisions,” she said. &#8220We're looking for different ways to have kids up and moving [as well as to] control the high sugar and high fat content of foods.”

The new MPS lunch menu features options with reduced calories, more fruits and vegetables, and only one grilled item daily; they are also keeping to a minimum menu options that are problematic to those with asthma. They've shifted to 1 percent milk, are reducing trans fats, have eliminated deep-fried foods, serve more whole grains and are downsizing portions. They're also trying to make menus more culturally inclusive.

The policy extends to the vending machines. &#8220We're asking that vending machines have products that strive to be good where appropriate. Many products are healthy alternatives to chips, for example. That's what we're asking schools to do in how we manage vending. And to have them not operate at the same time as lunch to compete against our efforts,” Coleman said.

Cashing in

Dutcher estimated that in the course of one week, a whole row of sandwiches will be wiped out, several salads will be gone and around four yogurt cups will be purchased from one of the vending machines, she said.

Still, baked chips, which meet the wellness guidelines but are also among the machine's least nutritious snacks, are by far the most popular snack. It demonstrates that how items are priced plays a major role in what students will buy.

Now, students have a large selection in the vending machines for $1. But getting the right combination of foods that are both healthful and cost-efficient is tricky, said Dutcher. Having a refrigerated vending machine can get wasteful if products don't sell. South has one &#8220cold” vending machine for perishables along with a regular vending machine.

To encourage healthier decisions, the price of baked chips was raised from 75 cents to $1 recently, while other less fatty foods were reduced to $1, down from as much as $1.75.

In the 2005-06 school year, South's total revenue from vending machines was $14,942. During the first three months last year, it earned $2,244 from vending machines. Throughout the first several months of this school year, the school has made $2,227. About 1,925 children attend South.

At other schools that have vending machines, which mainly include high schools and some middle-grade-level schools, earnings were similar to South's.

The amounts reflect the 28 percent commission the school gets from the vendor, Midwest Coca-Cola, which contributes an additional $200,000 every year to MPS.

Overall, about $155,000 was generated last year in vending machine sales altogether in MPS. The year before, it totaled $160,656 compared to $194,322 in 2002-03 and $138,916 in 2001-02.

Money from the vending machines is used for a variety of school needs. At South, the cash goes toward miscellaneous supplies and activities.

At other schools, however, dollars are used differently. Southwest High School, for instance, uses the profits to support a police liaison officer and a couple of off-duty police.

Positive changes

South High parent Mary McGurran said via e-mail that providing healthier items seems like a step in the right direction. Because her high school-aged children have their own money, she can't control what they do with it. &#8220In that way, it is more important to have restricted choices for them at school because they can do what they want,” she said.

Even though her daughter Abby doesn't eat many vending items, she said her son, who graduated last year, ate too much junk food.

Abby, a South High student, agreed that healthier vending is a good idea but said she's unsure about how many students take advantage of them, &#8220Having healthier choices are better and healthier for everyone,” she said. &#8220By having no candy in the vending machines, it gives the school more control over what kids are eating. But also people who bought candy out of the vending machines could just find another place to get it since there are always kids selling candy for fundraisers, and the school sells cookies in the lunch line. So it basically comes down to what the kid chooses to eat.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].