Vending Machines: the truth behind the controversy

Ari Case

Upon returning to GS for the 2022-2023 school year, students and teachers alike were shocked to learn that the controversial vending machines were to be closed during school hours from 7:30 in the morning to 2:45 in the afternoon.

In years past, the student lounge area outside of the cafeteria—home to the most often used vending machines in the building—has been a congregation spot for many students. Even now, students gather there before classes start every morning.

The most common time students used the vending machines in years past was advisory, and teachers on the first floor experienced the change more so than others.

“It does affect this advisory,” social studies teacher Mr. Robert Lehman said. “As far as people being late, because they [would] be hanging around the vending machines.”

The change was a shock not only for students, though. Most teachers did not find out until the in-service day before school, according to Mr. Lehman.

Reactions amongst the student body vary, but staff members expected students to be upset.

“It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Lehman said. “There were not as many complaints as I thought. I was surprised by that because I thought for sure people would [be outraged].”

While the students in Mr. Lehman’s advisory may not have been upset, other students were.

“I was quite disappointed,” senior Paytan Henry said. “It was truly devastating, and I think they should be [brought] back.”

Henry said that she used them nearly every day during advisory last year, common for many students.

“Advisory is the best time to go,” sophomore Alice Wilkinson said. “That’s when everyone eats.”

Wilkinson said she was surprised to hear about the change and has missed using the machines during the day. Students were not given an explanation, though many have made their own assumptions.

“I think [it was] because people were just kind of roaming the halls,” Wilkinson explained. “And saying they were going to the vending machines.”

For those who participated in activities over the summer, the machines were working all day. In extracurriculars, using the vending machines was commonplace.

“If it wasn’t every day, it was every other day,” freshman Ian Smith said.

Smith plays in the marching band and was at the school throughout summer for rehearsals. He said the change was disappointing for him and other kids in his position.

“With middle school, you don’t have much freedom and choices,” he said. “I felt that even just adding something as small as a vending machine was the difference between being an eighth grader and a ninth grader. It was having that sort of choice.”

Now, Smith buys snacks and drinks in the cafeteria line during lunch like many other students. A misconception within the school is that the cafeteria is responsible for the change, based on this information. It would make sense if they wished to increase their sales.

“We sell the same,” Director of Food and Nutrition Mr. Scott Hudak said.

Mr. Hudak is the Regional Chef for GS through the Nutrition Group, contracted with the district for the last nine years.

The cafeteria’s sales have not increased, according to Hudak. The decision was also not his to make.

“We don’t put the rules out there,” he stated.

He went on to explain the rules and regulations behind vending machines in schools in detail.

According to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) memorandum sent to Child Nutrition Program (CNP) operators, “items sold to students on campus throughout the school day, including those sold in vending machines, must comply with Smart Snacks in School requirements,” even if they are not meal replacement items.

The FDA memorandum cited several dozen regulations and limitations on food and drinks allowed in school vending machines, almost none of which are met by the machines at GS.

Hudak said that an inspection is approaching that would decide funding for the school food programs.

“Your school district gets reimbursed from the government a certain amount of money,” he said. “To make up the difference in what [students] pay for lunch and what the government will fund the school to pay the other half.”

At GS, breakfast, lunch and dinner are free—meaning the reimbursements are crucial for the district.

Previously, the FDA regulations still applied. The companies that fill vending machines do not follow the guidelines because it would cost them significant profit. There has not been an inspection in several years, as they are usually every three-to-five. This and COVID-19 complications led to the vending machines being left as they were.

“They just kind of let it slide,” Hudak said. “But now everything’s back to the strictest [requirements].”

Now, with the renewed restrictions, things needed to change.

“I don’t really have a decision as to whether or not I can choose to break the rules,” High School Principal Mr. David Zilli said. “It wasn’t like we made a conscious decision to break the rules. The interpretation in the past was that they could not be on during lunches.”

Mr. Zilli said he became aware of it shortly before the school year and that it was a district decision. He acknowledged that the vending machines provided benefits, but they needed to be turned off nonetheless.

Unfortunately, there are more problems than hungry students during advisory. The Student Council Association (SCA) gets an important part of their funding from the vending machines.

“My initial reaction was ‘Oh, we’re gonna lose money,’” Senior Class Treasurer Sam Spigarelli said.

Spigarelli explained that each month, SCA makes a commission from the machines. He said the company that supplies them cuts SCA checks for a decent part of their total profit.

He also noted that it was a surprise to SCA that they would be losing that area of funding.

“From my understanding, we found out they were going to be shut off during the school day the week before school started,” he said. “It was very last minute.”

Though that could be seen as a lack of communication, the decision was short notice for everyone, including administration.

Zilli said he “got an email on August 23rd” only a week before the first day.

Now, SCA is looking at other ways to make up for that loss. The loss of funding, if not balanced through other means, will likely raise the price of dance tickets for the year.

“That’s not really an option that we have, whether we lose money or not,” Zilli said. “We have to abide by the rules set for us.”

Spigarelli explained that one method of funding SCA was looking at was sponsorship opportunities. He urged students to reach out if they could help.

“If you know somebody who has a company or has a business and they want to sponsor SCA events for the whole year, then they should reach out to an SCA representative or Mr. Gazze,” he said.

While it was a shock to students and teachers—and not a good one for most—there are alternatives that will hopefully work out for everyone.

“I can understand how it would be a disappointment for students who were used to it, since it was a surprise,” social studies teacher Mrs. Beth Simone said. “But I think everyone should be able to adapt.”

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