Money in the slot for some tip-top tucker

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Vending machines have moved on. Some even offer complete meals for pupils on the move.Su Clark reports

The pupils at Dalkeith School Campus in Midlothian have had some bad press since it opened in 2003. The mixed campus brought together non-denominational Dalkeith High with St David's High, a Catholic school, and Saltergate, a special needs school. Rumours about sectarian battles have recently been overshadowed by the Jodie Jones trial following the murder of the St David's pupil near her home in Dalkeith in June 2003.

But behind all the headlines, there have been some vital changes. Dalkeith School Campus, with its shared catering facilities, has moved more quickly than most towards healthy eating, including healthy vending.

Midlothian took the opportunity of the new campus to introduce new machines that could safely store fresh food and withstand rough treatment from hungry students. Five of the seven machines now on campus are traditional drinks and snack machines, but none ever stocked high-sugar carbonated drinks.

The machines have just one line of confectionery and only sell "lite" crisps or corn snacks, while drinks machines offer only flavoured water and energy drinks. But there is also a state-of-the-art meal machine that offers complete nutritionally balanced meals that children in a hurry can grab and run.

All this has come ahead of the Executive ruling that branded vending machines must be removed from secondary schools by 2006.

"When the children first came, the meal vending machine was barely touched," says Margaret McKenzie, Hungry for Success co-ordinator for catering. There is still an inevitable amount of waste, but now we have to restock it regularly through the day and we are selling most of the food on most days."

Each compartment of the machine holds a sandwich or salad, a yogurt or piece of fruit and a healthy drink. Choices include chicken wraps, cheese rolls and ham salads. "We've had to use white bread because students simply won't buy brown, even if it's one slice of white and one of brown," says Norman Catto, business manager for Midlothian Council's school meals service. "But we do use low-sodium bread."

So far, Dalkeith and Lasswade High are the only secondaries to have such a machine, although all schools have healthy snack and drinks vending. But the council is committed to investing in new machines so that all will have the service by the end of 2005.

They don't come cheap. Each machine costs around pound;4,000. But vending can be very profitable, and some reports suggest that a single machine could fund a teacher's salary. Figures from Dalkeith suggest that healthy vending is profitable, too. Its trading income in 2003-4 was nearly pound;170,000, with vending profits of pound;15,769 going to the schools. Enough for a part-time teacher perhaps.

"Before the new campus opened we had begun changing the vending produce gradually," says Mr Catto. "Between January and Easter 2003 we had slowly removed the branded fizzy drinks and replaced them with the flavoured waters and juices. There wasn't any backlash."

Innovations from the United States will soon allow the drinks machines to stock milk and fresh juice cartons, impossible at the moment because the slots are too large.

"There was a risk that students would try to topple them out of the slots by pushing the machine forward or that cartons could get stuck and spill, creating a health hazard," says Lexie Campbell, Midlothian Council's operations manager for catering and cleaning.

Fears that the new machines might not be as sturdy as machines developed for the New York underground by the larger providers have proven unfounded.

The greatest fear was that one might be toppled over by students trying to get a free bottle of drink, so they were brought out of each of the individual locations and put together in the shared catering area. That move has been a success.

"There was also a problem of students going to get drinks between periods and being late for class," says Mr Catto. "So the headteachers were much happier to see them moved into the hall."

At present, the vending machines are cash based, with the complete meals vending for pound;1.50. But once computer glitches have been ironed out, the meals machine will become part of the cashless system that now runs in the served meals section. This will allow it to be part of the points systems developed by Midlothian, whereby students can pick up points with each purchase, with healthier meals gaining higher points, much like a supermarket loyalty card.

"I'm talking to the Ratho Adventure Centre in Edinburgh and the Peebles mountain bike centre," says Mr Catto. "I want the rewards to be sports based."

The success of the new approach at the Dalkeith campus and its acceptance by students has served to bolster Midlothian's plan to roll out healthy vending to all schools. And with increasing familiarity with the machines and their undeniable convenience, the machines' growing popularly is assured.

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