Good food at the press of a button

20th August 2004 at 01:00
No one likes to queue, especially when schedules are busy, but fast snacks are not usually nutritious. Vending machines offering healthy options are winning broad support, writes Raymond Ross.

Vending machines in schools may conjur up images of hyperactive kids filling up on fizzy drinks and sweets as multinational companies sell their products to a ready market.

Certainly, vending machines are popular with children, saving them from queuing in the dining area or at the tuck shop.

However, increasingly local authorities are looking to vending machines to provide healthy options that are supplementary to what is on offer at the servery. One such authority is Highland, which has 14 healthy options vending machines in secondary schools already and hopes to roll them out to 22 of its 25 secondaries over the next financial year.

The food machines offer sandwiches, yoghurts, salads, pots of prepared foods and twin packs of snacks such as fruit muffins and milk, packaged in recyclable materials as much as possible, while the drinks machines offer mineral water, including flavoured options, and fruit juices.

One of the first Highland schools to install the machines a year ago was Nairn Academy. It was actually the pupil council that campaigned for them.

"SNAG, our school nutrition action group, a sub-group of the pupil council, initiated the drive for healthy vending machines because, they argued, they will cut down on queues," says headteacher Campbell Dickson.

"The initiative was supported by the staff, the school board and the Parent-Teacher Association."

He adds: "You can't really claim to be a health promoting school if you sell confectionery and sweet fizzy drinks, so we have phased them out from our tuck shop.

"This session we are introducing a healthy breakfast club, which in itself will help to make healthy eating a social activity. But the great advantage of the machines is that the pupils can access them before or after school or during breaks and that's why they're so popular."

Mr Dickson is in no doubt about the importance of the initiatives. "We want to promote an active school with healthier, happier young people who, we must remember, are not only tomorrow's adults but tomorrow's parents."

The approach to healthy eating and health promotion in general has to be, Highland Council believes, both holistic and gradual.

Catering services manager Donalda Williams says: "We see the machines as enhancing our health promoting service. Gradually we've been cutting down all sales of confectionery and sweet fizzy drinks, which will be phased out entirely by August next year.

"All our catering is geared towards healthy options, with deli-bars alongside traditional hot meals. In our secondaries we offer less and less of the burger and chips type of meal.

"You have to go gradually, reducing the number of days they're an option, otherwise the kids just walk down the street for chips."

Mrs Williams believes healthy food vending machines, coupled with the influence of healthy eating programmes in primary schools, has increased the consumption of fruit and vegetables in Highland's secondary schools.

"The primary programme is fantastic and is beginning to kick in in the secondaries.

"I can say it's fantastic as both a mother and professional caterer.

Primaries all offer balanced meals with new things to try all the time, and we offer milk, water and fruit juice at every meal.

"Primary pupils are beginning to take these habits into secondaries now.

Last session there was a marked improvement in the consumption of fruit and veg."

The real snags about vending machines are not only cost - up to pound;5,000 each without commercial subsidy - but also they are only viable in larger schools. "We can only put them into 22 of our 25 secondaries," says Mrs Williams, "because in the three smallest they wouldn't be emptied in a week, never mind a day. So they are not financially viable there."

"It's all about availability and flexibility," says Norma Murray, the catering and cleaning manager for Highland's education, culture and sports service.

"Pupils can use them on the way to games, for example, and they're very popular during exam times.

"But we only install them in conjunction with what the individual school wants."

Highland's healthy options vending machines initiative is not confined to schools; they could soon be in leisure and community facilities too, says Ms Murray.

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