In Wichita high schools, swipe a card, push a button, get a lunch

09/07/2011 12:00 AM

09/07/2011 6:38 AM

With the touch of a few buttons and a quick scan of her student ID, Edna Pineda got a turkey sandwich, vegetables, chips and chocolate milk and headed outside for lunch. "I like it because it's quicker and the food's better," said Pineda, an East High School junior. "I don't like to go to the cafeteria."

New vending machines at Wichita high schools dispense sandwiches, salads and other cold meals that meet federal nutrition requirements for school lunches.

The vending machines were first installed last year at North High when the school switched from two lunch periods to one.

"It was a real challenge to get everybody through the lunch line, so the machines helped," said Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for the Wichita district.

Three vending machines were installed at East High last year and also became popular, Hoffman said. North and East each averaged about 150 meals a day from the machines last year.

Students at South, Southeast and West began using the machines at the start of the school year. Heights, Northwest and Northeast Magnet will get machines in September.

"There are students who go through four years of high school and never step foot in the cafeteria," Hoffman said.

Maybe their classes before and after lunch seem miles away from the lunchroom, she said. Perhaps they don't like school lunches, don't want to wait in line, don't want to jockey for a seat or deal with cafeteria drama.

Whatever the reason, officials sought another strategy to pair healthy lunches with hungry students, particularly those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

"It's just another entry point, another option," Hoffman said of the new vending machines. "They really seem to like it."

The refrigerated machines cost about $15,000 apiece including hardware, software, licenses, installation, setup and training, said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman. The district has purchased 16 machines so far.

Meals from the machines meet the same nutrient requirements as those served in the cafeteria. Entrees include turkey or ham wraps, chicken fajita salad and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Each entree comes with fresh vegetables, fruit and milk.

Students pay by scanning their meal cards and entering their birth dates. The machines are linked with cashier stations at the school cafeteria so that each student gets only one lunch per day at the regular price.

After all the machines are up and running, officials plan to test cash transactions that would allow sales outside of meal times for students or visitors who have after-school activities and want a healthy meal, Hoffman said.

Mayra Rodriguez, a junior at East, got her lunch from the machine recently because it was close to her Spanish class.

"You walk out and it's right here, so it's easy," she said. "I don't like the whole wait-in-line thing."

School officials plan to evaluate what's popular and vary menus accordingly. Last year they offered yogurt parfaits in the machines, but only after testing "to make sure they could withstand the fall," Hoffman said.

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