School food rules will change your vending machine

Marketplace HQ's own vending machine. See it on Instagram here.

Today the USDA released new regulations on those sweet and salty snacks sold in school vending machines. Snack-food companies have already been offering healthier options, but starting next year no candy bar or soda or bag of chips in a school vending machine can exceed 200 calories.

Myron Forst has seen lots of changes to the vending machine industry over the last 50 years. In the 1940s, he saw a man servicing a penny gumball machine. When the man opened the machine, Forst peeked inside where the coins were collected.

"There was about six dimes in there that people had used as a penny," Forst recalls. At that moment, something clicked in his mind. All those pennies and dimes added up to dollars. By the time he was 16, Forst had 50 peanut machines. Today, he owns 758 vending machines in Southern California. Lately he's been getting more requests for healthier items like baked chips.

But he says, "A lot of times we throw away our baked chips because even though the customer has requested it, it doesn't move and it goes stale on us."

The junk food that people often choose over healthy alternatives is what many nutritionists refer to as competitive foods. "Meaning they compete with healthier foods," according Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food nutrition and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He says the Smart Snacks in Schools regulations will prevent kids from having to choose between a candy bar and a banana.

Thirty-nine states already have their own regulations governing the food sold in schools. When the new rules go into effect, every state will have uniform guidelines.

Analysts expect the vending machine industry will generate about $7.4 billion next year. Nearly $2 billion of that will come from schools. But here in California, where schools already require healthier vending machines, "You have to put in stuff that the kids don't really want," Forst says. As a result he's already seen a drop in sales.

SIDE NOTE:

The earliest reference to a vending machine was made by Hero -- a Greek mathematician, physicist and engineer who probably lived in Alexandria during the first century A.D. -- who described and illustrated a coin-operated device to be used for vending sacrificial water in Egyptian temples. Completely automatic, the device was set in operation by the insertion of a five-drachma coin.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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