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Vending Machines in Schools: The Definitive Guide

The first record of vending machines in schools comes from the 1950s and it’s no surprise that even then, school vending machines were a hotly-contested issue. Back then—the first vending-machines-in-schools detractors were dentists who voiced their concern that vending machine products would rot children’s teeth.

vending machines in schools

Today, vending machines have come a long way. There are currently hundreds of thousands of vending machines in schools and dentists (and all of us) are pleased to know that all vending machines in schools have been required to be healthy as of July 1st of 2014.

A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that students consume as much as half of their calories each day at school. There is both a huge opportunity to provide schools with healthy vending machines and a huge responsibility to ensure that students who are purchasing competitive food and beverages at school purchase something nourishing.

According to a recent article by Franchise Chatter: “The vending industry has changed significantly in just the last few years but food and beverage sales are still the leaders, with a lot more room for growth, especially in food vending. In 2011, vended food brought in $820 million”


The following guide will walk you through the history of vending machines in schools, the growth of healthy vending, the changing legislative landscape surrounding vending machines in schools and the keys to succeeding as a vending operator or school location in this climate.  If you are interested in learning more specifically about vending industry, take a look at our complete guide to starting a vending machine business.

The History of Vending Machines In Schools

To understand why vending machines in schools is such a contentious issue right now, it’s important to take a step back and see the history of vending machines in schools.

1950s – While coin-operated food vending machines were introduced in 1888, the first records of vending machines in schools don’t exist until the 1950s. According to Foodtimeline.org, these print references for vending machines targeted student consumption and report “the fact that dentists opposed vending machines because they promoted tooth decay. They confirm the machines dispensed candy and sweetened drinks.”

1970 – In 1970, the US Department of Agriculture agreed to amend the national School Lunch Program (came into place in 1946) to allow vending and food-service companies to participate.

1972 – School Lunch Act amendment published that allowed the sale of “competitive foods.”

1979 – The USDA passes competitive food rules for the first time. Regulations only limit the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value (FMNV). FMNV are defined in federal regulations as having less than 5 percent of the RDA per serving for eight key nutrients and include soft drinks, water ices, chewing gum and certain sugar-based candies (such as jelly beans). FMNV cannot be sold in foodservice areas during meal periods but may be sold anywhere else in a school at any time.

2010 The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires the USDA to establish national nutrition standards for all food sold and served in schools at any time during the school day. It allows for exemptions for school-sponsored fundraisers if the fundraisers are approved by the school and are infrequent.

2013 – USDA proposes new competitive food rules and opens them to public comment for 60 days. After public comment and revision, the new Interim Final standards, called “Smart Snacks in School,” are published with a deadline date for school compliance of July 1, 2014.

2014 – Before July 1st, Schools transition to compliance with the Smart Snacks In School rules. After July 1st, schools must be in compliance.

2015 – The USDA finalizes the Smart Snacks In School rules after taking into account feedback from schools.

2016 – On July 1st, two specifications in the Interim Final Smart Snacks In School rules will get stricter: the sodium limit will go from 230mg to 200mg per snack item. Additionally, foods will no longer meet the ingredients requirement just for having 10% of the Daily Value of calcium, potassium, Vitamin D or fiber.

For the quick-and-dirty, condensed version of vending machines in schools, please see our infographic:

The Growth of Healthy Vending Machines In Schools

Consumers are demanding healthful foods. Even in areas without healthy vending legislation, consumer vending choices have shifted, according to the State of the Vending Industry report. Over the last few years, vending machine sales of candy and salty snacks have fallen while sales of “nutrition snacks” — a category that includes breakfast bars, granola bars, rice cakes and trail mix — have grown. In 2010 alone, nutrition snack sales increased 7.7% compared with 2009.

The vending industry has taken the lead in deciding what qualifies as a “healthful” snack in places where laws haven’t kept pace with consumer demand. For instance, the National Automatic Merchandising Assn., the top vending industry group, uses stickers to promote “Fit Pick” snacks, which have no more than 35% of calories from fat, 10% of calories from saturated fat and 35% of total weight from sugar. While this is a smart move for vending machines in offices and gyms, the USDA itself is leading the charge when it comes to the standards for foods sold in vending machines in schools.

For example, in June 2013, the USDA published its Interim Final Rules for what can be sold during the school day in vending machines, a la carte, student stores and via fundraising. Called “Smart Snacks In School,” these rules apply to any school that participates in the National School Lunch Program (100k+ schools nationally). We’ll delve more into the specifications of this new legislation below, but you can get a taste for what this means in the following Good Day Sacramento clip featuring HUMAN CEO and Co-Founder Sean Kelly.


If you work at or for a school and would like a step-by-step guide on complying with Smart Snacks In School, please click HERE to download our free guide.

If you are interested in helping school locations go healthy as a vending franchisee, please click HERE to download our guide.

The Changing Landscape of Vending Machines in Schools

By looking at the timeline above, you can see that vending machines in schools have gone from a highly unregulated fixture at schools to a highly regulated one. Below, we’ll go into more depth regarding the USDA’s new Smart Snacks In School rules and also give you some insight into other areas of vending machine legislation that show how consumer and legislative demand is shaping the industry.

Smart Snacks In School Give School Snacks an Extreme Makeover

As we’ve mentioned above, the USDA published new rules for competitive foods sold on school campuses during the school day.

The issue has gained national prominence with media outlets from California to Montana to Miami to New Hampshire (and more!) reporting on the issue.

As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the USDA’s Interim Final “Smart Snacks In School” rules set ingredient requirements and nutrient limits for all foods and beverages sold to students on campus during the school day (and 30 minutes thereafter) through vending machines, a la carte lunch lines, student stores and fundraising, other than those meals reimbursable under federal meal programs.

Smart Snacks In School require that foods be rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and/or dairy and be limited in the following nutrients: calories, fats (regular, saturated and trans), sugars and sodium.

There are still a few gray areas in the rules, including whether corn meal qualifies as a whole grain under the rule. We got word that this is something the FDA will soon clarify (the USDA defers to the FDA, rightfully, on what constitutes a whole grain).

Additionally, the USDA is drafting legislation that would amend section 303 of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to give the USDA the mechanism to assess fees for egregious non-compliance with the new rules (though technical assistance is always the first resort). Currently, it is state agencies that have the authority to assess fines for non-compliance with competitive food rules.

If you work at or for a school and would like a step-by-step guide on complying with Smart Snacks In School, please click HERE to download our free guide.

If you are interested in helping school locations go healthy as a vending franchisee, please click HERE to download our guide.

Top-Selling Smart-Snacks-In-School-Compliant Healthy Vending Products

products in healthy vending machines in schools

  1. Pop Corner’s “Popped” in Sweet Cinnamon
  2. Hint Water in blackberry
  3. Pop Chips in Katy’s Kettle
  4. Mary’s Gone Crackers in Gluten-free Organic Hot ‘N Spicy Jalapeno
  5. Emerald 100 Calorie Packs Natural Almonds
  6. Annie’s Organic Cinnamon Graham Crackers
  7. Clif ZBar in Full Moon Brownie
  8. Larabar in Blueberry Muffin
  9. Izze in Sparkling Clementine
  10. Steaz in Black Cherry

Michelle Obama Proposes School Junk-Food-Marketing Ban

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, as part of the reauthorization of funding for the Child Nutrition Act, set funding and policy for USDA programs, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Summer Food Service Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Part of the HHFKA mandated that the USDA set guidelines for what needs to be included in local school wellness policies in areas such as setting goals for nutrition education and physical activity, informing parents about content of the policy and implementation, and periodically assessing progress and sharing updates as appropriate.  (And yes, the HHFKA is also what mandated that the USDA update its National School Lunch Program, which has gone through several iterations and challenges, and mandated that the USDA update its competitive foods rules, which is where the Smart Snacks In School rules come into play).

As part of local school wellness policies, the proposed guidelines would ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools during the school day are consistent with the USDA’s Smart Snacks In School rules. First Lady Michelle Obama has made it a priority to ensure that unhealthful foods are not marketed to children at school and that the school environment sets a consistent message with the USDA.

“’Our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food,’ Obama said in a statement. ‘Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn’t be undone by unhealthy messages at school.’ The move follows a White House Summit on Food Marketing to Children this past fall, which brought health and industry experts to the table” [source].

According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, the food industry spends $1.8 billion per year in the U.S. on marketing targeted to young people with the majority these ads are for unhealthy products, high in calories, sugar, fat, and/or sodium [source].

While junk-food companies might bemoan the loss of advertising on school campuses, healthy vending machines with LCD screens are still a viable option as long as the advertisements shown are for products that are compliant with the Smart Snacks In School rules. Franchisees that are a part of HUMAN Healthy Vending are in a unique position to ensure that schools comply with the Smart Snacks In School rules and still generate the vending commissions schools have come to rely on.



The Benefits of Vending Machines In Schools

There are several benefits to having healthy vending machines in schools from increased vending commissions to improved student health to community leadership and to USDA compliance.

For two case studies that show the financial benefits of having healthy vending machine sin schools, please “meet” Principals Sarah Smoot and Tommy Johnson below.

1. Irvington High School in Fremont, CA

Sarah Smoot, principal of Irvington High School, which is within the Fremont School District and has four healthy vending machines, said, “I feel as though the vendor cares about my school and that is very important to me. I genuinely believe that the company is trying to help us have more profit so that we can do what we need to do here and that’s just really important.”

HUMAN Healthy Vending is the Fremont School District’s exclusive healthy vending provider. “The commissions from before [HUMAN] were pretty inconsistent. Now, it’s over doubled. This year, I’ve been able to donate pieces of that money to programs that have difficulty fundraising,” said Smoot [source].

To hear and “meet” Principal Smoot, please watch the video below in which she explains why having healthy vending at Irvington High School has benefited the school and its students:


To see the accompanying numbers, click HERE to read the Irvington High School case study.

2. Oak Ridge High School in Tomball, Texas

Principal Tommy Johnson of Oak Ridge High School in Tomball, Texas, which has 3200 students, reports a 15-20% increase in vending commissions after installing a HUMAN Healthy Vending program.

“The money that we make off of vending gives me the latitude to do things for students that I normally wouldn’t be able to do, [but] it’s not just about money, it’s also about bringing kids something of nutritional value.”

To hear and “meet” Principal Johnson, please watch the video below:


Click HERE to read the full case study, which illustrates how Oakridge High School doubled its vending commissions.

In addition to the health and financial benefits of having healthy vending machines in schools, there are logistical benefits.

“Remote monitoring technology helps district leaders manage the machines. ‘Both the vending provider and district leader can monitor what products sell best and when high-selling periods are,’ says Sean Kelly [CEO & Co-Founder of HUMAN]. ‘For example, this helps administrators ensure that vending machines will not be sold out of water or popular snacks before big events like basketball games,’ Kelly says” [here].

If you work at or for a school and would like to bring healthy vending to your school, please click HERE.

If you are interested in helping school locations go healthy as a vending franchisee, please click HERE to download our guide.

Top 5 Ways Owner-Operators Succeed in Today’s Vending Climate

  1. Stay on top of changing legislation (federal calorie disclosure rules, USDA Smart Snacks In School, etc.) & abide by it
  2. Work with parent groups, nutrition activists and community leaders to create a community of healthful snacking habits
  3. Host sampling events to introduce locations to healthful products and garner feedback
  4. Have the most up-to-date vending and sales technology that makes it easy for locations to see sales reports & inventory
  5. Are part of a franchise system that provides support, infrastructure, branding and continual coaching to ensure their success


There is a lot of opportunity for school locations and vending operators alike to leverage new USDA legislation to ensure that students and faculty eat healthfully. For potential vending operators, the time is now. As schools are still transitioning into compliance now, there is still a short window of time before schools choose their healthy vending provider.

For schools, the time is now to transition so that you have adequate time to introduce students to the new compliant products, garner feedback and work with food service staff to ensure a seamless and hassle-free transition.

If you are interested in helping school locations go healthy as a vending franchisee, please click the image below to download our guide.


Annabel Adams
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