This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On those days when another helping of sloppy joes doesn’t seem appetizing or prudent, students have always had an escape: the vending machine.
But in Philadelphia — and around the country — this humble dispenser of snacks and sodas has been bleeding money and popularity. The decline corresponds to regulations — first local and now national — that limit the kinds of junk food that schools can stock.
Now this is hardly a fiscal crisis. In Philadelphia and other big cities, snack machines aren’t a major source of revenue.
But the dramatic dip in vending machine commissions does suggest that public health advocates may have finally created a school eating environment without junk food loopholes, a rare place where the only choice is healthy fare.
The decline also raises a question: Is this the end of the road for the once-cherished school vending machine?
A short history
Schools have been selling snacks since at least the beginning of the National School Lunch Program in 1946. By 2005, according to a USDA survey, 98 percent of high schools and 87 percent of middle schools had a vending machine. Meanwhile, 92 percent of secondary schools offered for-purchase snacks during lunch, often called “a la carte” items.
A la carte items and snacks dispensed via vending machines have been dubbed “competitive foods” by researchers because they compete with the traditional school lunch. Back in 2005, they were competing pretty well. That’s partly because there were few restrictions on what schools could sell outside the school meal, which was itself subject to fairly significant regulation.
"If you restrict, say, the kind of options you can sell in the cafeteria, but not in the vending machine, that creates an opportunity for the vending machine," said Joanne Guthrie, a research nutritionist with the food economics division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Though no official figures date back that far, the School District of Philadelphia says it made more than a half-million dollars annually in vending machine commissions about a decade ago. But the days of robust revenue didn’t last.
“There’s been massive changes in school nutrition in general — both what’s sold in school vending machines, as well as school meals – in the last decade or so,” said Daniel Taber, vice president of research and evaluation for Healthy Food America and an expert on school food.
Philadelphia led the charge
In 2004, Philadelphia became one of the first cities to ban soda sales in its schools. The next year, the District established new guidelines that limited the types of foods that could be sold in vending machines, school stores, and even fundraisers.
By fiscal year 2012, the once-mighty vending machines were generating just $109,000 in commission sales for the District — roughly a fifth of what they had raked in about five years earlier. And the free-fall wasn’t over.
In July 2014, federal guidelines went into effect that further restricted the types of competitive foods that schools could sell. Under the Smart Snacks Standards, they must be free of trans fats, 200 calories or less, and meet other benchmarks for sugar, sodium, and fat content. This doesn’t mean school snacks have to be super-healthy — certain small bags of chips and even ice cream bars still make the cut — but the days of 20-ounce sodas and massive bags of fried chips have vanished.