Kids love them. Old sads hate them. Big garish coin-in-the-slot machines attract hordes of children at break-time eager for a quick fix of sugar drinks and calorie-packed confectionery bars. But behind the scenes there has been a sea change in the way the machine operators and schools are looking at vending. The machines, it seems, are becoming health-conscious.
Kent schools' Heart in the Mouth project, a year-long experiment to encourage healthy eating, found that children would opt for healthy choices if they were available, looked appetising and were priced competitively. Deutsche Wurlitzer, a vending machine manufacturer, has responded.
Better known for juke boxes than lunch boxes, the firm has developed a vending machine that will deliver chilled, pre-packed and microwavable healthy meals. David Bott, the company's general manager, says: "It simply isn't true that just because you've got a vending machine all you get out of it is crisps and chocolate. With a bit of thought and a bit of preparation, you can produce healthy alternatives for sale through the vending machine."
To get its message across, Deutsche Wurlitzer has issued a recipe sheet which it is sending free to schools. The sheet includes dishes such as pizza slices, pitta bread filled with Swedish meatballs, banana scones, popcorn and bagels with soft cheese. Dietary information is given beside each item: the number of calories per serving along with the proportions of fat, sugar and fibre.
Mr Bott explains: "We want to encourage school canteens to prepare healthy meals that can also be retailed through a vending machine. It gives greater flexibility to the catering manager."
With many schoolchildren preferring snacks to cooked dinners, vending machine operators and caterers have been offering to lease machines to schools, usually on a year's contract. Food and drinks manufacturers have also been eager to muscle in on a growing market and only too happy to provide a machine free of charge - so long as it is stocked with their products.
Both the vending machine operators and the food and drinks manufacturers have been listening to the advice of the Schools Nutrition Action Group (SNAG). Set up 10 years ago as a loosely federated alliances between local authorities, health authorities and schools, SNAGs have been setting nutritional standards. SNAG spokeswoman Sandra Passmore of the health education section of Birmingham Education Department believes vending machines can be used to increase the range of healthy products in school such as diet drinks, milks, juices, low fat snacks, nuts and raisins. She says: "Children will eat simple nutritious food if it is well presented."
Based on SNAG guidelines, the Automatic Vending Association of Britain has issued a code of conduct all members have to comply with. The association's director, Janette Gledhill, says: "Schools are a very good market for our members and quality is very important. A vending machine can sell whatever you want to put in it." The association's code recommends that members should work with schools to identify particular needs and to help create a balanced range of healthy eating options.
Multisnack, a Nestle subsidiary, has schools vending machines that stock a wide range of the parent company's confectionery and drinks. David Llewellyn, marketing manager for Nestle's vending subsidiary Multisnack, says: "We comply with the AVAB code of conduct and offer healthy options in our machines. Our Breakaway Bar is basically a chocolate-coated wholewheat biscuit and we buy in Jordan's Fruesli bars. The fat content of our Kit-Kit bars is less than some so-called healthy products."
In spite of the industry's apparent willingness to put its own house in order, the Department for Education and Employment is so concerned about the problem it has commissioned a report and has produced a set of guidance documents Eating Well at School - guidelines that the new Labour Government may well decide to make mandatory.
Gardner Merchant, a catering contractor, helped the department draw up its nutrition guidelines but is not anti-vending machine. It will install vending machines in the schools where it provides a canteen service but only after detailed discussions with the school itself. The company's dietician, Maureen Strong, says: "We don't actively promote machines in school, but if we feel the demand is there then we come up with a suitable package."
She believes vending machines can form part of overall catering provision but should never replace school meals. "Snacks or drinks from a vending machine can be a very useful adjunct to catering, especially if you have very active children. The sugar replaces energy that is burnt off."
Health issues aside, some schools see free or low-cost, tied vending machines as a money-spinner. Nestle offers schools two options. They can have a machine free of charge and pay a higher unit price for drinks and confectionery or they can pay a Pounds 20 weekly rental and then less for the products to fill it. Nestle bill the arrangement as a fundraising partnership in which profits are shared. Multisnack claims some schools can raise up to Pounds 4,000 in this way.
But if the school is hoping to share in the profits from running a vending machine then sometimes it can be in for a let-down. The machines need a high throughput to break even and with school holidays and the restricted timetable for a school day, the demand for a machine may not be enough to justify the costs of installation and regular servicing.
Liam Small of Carovale, a vending machine operator, says: "There are only 36 weeks of the year when things are happening. Vending will only succeed when there are a lot of people." Only where use of school buildings is shared by adult evening classes can machines really come into their own.