Reimbursable Vending Machines Change the Face of Breakfast at Cincinnati Public Schools

Beyond Breakfast sat down with Jessica Shelly (RS, REHS, MBA), Food Services Director of Cincinnati Public Schools to talk about her school breakfast program. Jessica has incorporated vending machines that disperse reimbursable meals to students, helping her double participation Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your school breakfast story with us!

Beyond Breakfast: Jessica, can you give us a little background on what your district is doing with vending machines that disperse a reimbursable breakfast to students?

Cincinnati Public Schools offer three cycle menus throughout the year—a fall cycle, winter cycle, and spring cycle menu—for breakfast. We offer a variety of choices to our students each day at breakfast that range from a cold cereal option to a protein option—either a yogurt, or a peanut butter-and-jelly snacker bar, or a low-fat string cheese. During our winter cycle menus we offer a hot entrée option such as whole-grain pancakes, or breakfast sandwiches with turkey sausage. We have fourteen secondary schools in our district with the reimbursable vending machines that vend out a complete breakfast option to each child. The meal includes a variety of milk options, either 100% juice or fresh fruit option, and then there are two-grain or grain/protein entrée options for breakfast.

The vending machines are placed outside of the lunchroom. In our large high schools it was difficult for students to make it to their locker, make it to the lunchroom for breakfast, and then make it to their classroom for first bell. So by placing the vending machines in other areas outside of the lunchroom, we were hoping to capture the students who weren’t able to make it all the way to the lunchroom. The vending machines ended up serving two purposes: making breakfast more convenient for students and alleviating some of the stigma of eating breakfast in the. I have one secondary student who, when we were discussing what would encourage them to have breakfast at school, made the comment that he didn’t want it to be the “walk of shame” in the morning—being identified by walking to the cafeteria. By installing the vending machines, breakfast became an option for all students, not just those who “needed” it and that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen.

BB: Can you give us an idea of how the vending machines have impacted participation?

Before installing the vending machines, our breakfast participation was around 16-17 percent in high schools; after the vending machines went into place we were averaging 29-30 percent participation. So the vending machines helped reduce stigma, so when kids were seen with breakfast it didn’t matter if it was from the vending machines [or the cafeteria line]. The vending machines gave kids who needed breakfast the opportunity to get one. We have had universal breakfast since 2004–all of our schools have it–but we found that the key at the high schools was bringing that breakfast outside of the lunchroom. This year we’ve gone above and beyond—we don’t have the data yet for it, but we’re expecting participation to go even higher because we are Provision 2 this year.

Q: What other delivery methods are you using for breakfast besides the vending machines?

Now we don’t just have reimbursable meal vending machines, but we’ve taken our salad bars and are using them as breakfast kiosks, stationing them at entrance areas of the schools. When kids come in in the morning they can grab breakfast without going all the way down to the cafeteria—it’s right there in front of them. We find that share tables have really benefited the kids as well—if there are kids who really need seconds they can take them. It’s also great for the student athletes who want the extra calories.

BB: What gave you the idea to use the salad bars as breakfast carts?

It evolved as kind of a back-door option. My initial campaign was a salad bar in every school, and salad bars—to purchase the equipment—were relatively expensive. American Dairy Association Mideast offered a Fuel Up to Play 60 grant for every school that I wanted to apply for a salad bar for, so I tried to think of a way I could increase breakfast participation using FUTP60 money at the same time. I purchased the Cambro equipment needed for salad bars, and they serve a dual role as breakfast kiosks.

There wasn’t any direct cost to me as the result of using this grant money, and of course American Dairy Association/Fuel Up to Play 60 are based on fueling kids up with nutritious foods—all foods! Grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. They were supportive of my using equipment for two meal services instead of one. Why would you want to buy a $3000 piece of equipment and only use it during one meal service when you can use it in another, and continue to spread the message of healthy eating? Initially we tried to do breakfast-in-the-classroom, but we have had more success with kiosks and having the kids go to the auditorium, the gym, or the playground to eat.

BB: Tell us a little bit about resistance you received, and how you addressed those concerns.

We find that while there are issues with initial pushback—concerns about mess, etcetera—what we find is that after breakfast is put into place those fears are addressed. Before we put in the reimbursable vending machines we had pushback from principals about fears of trash and messes, but none of those fears have come to light—and now I have champions in those principals! Those principals are my spokespeople when I have to go into a school and talk to other principals and teachers about getting breakfast participation up by trying new and inventive methods. It’s one thing to hear it from me, but to hear it from a fellow principal connects more with them. Using the success stories of my principals has been invaluable to me.

BB: And how about the custodial staff?

Custodial staff had concerns about mess, but they have come around. I have a wonderfully supportive facilities director, and he and I are a team in this effort. We went in with the attitude of, “We’re going to try it and if we need to make adjustments we’ll find a way to make it work.” We haven’t had to, because the kids are completely responsible in terms of putting garbage in the proper garbage cans; they don’t throw things around—it just hasn’t happened that way. There was worry about them bringing food to the classroom, and that being disruptive, but what we’ve found—for the high school kids, especially—is that they are usually done consuming their breakfast by the time they get to the classroom!

BB: Let’s visit what is happening at the elementary level in your district.

Our elementary schools have a great amount of autonomy, so each principal decides what kind of breakfast they will have at their school. Our superintendent has an initiative in place that all schools with a 40 percent or higher free/reduced percentage must do a “breakfast best practice.” That means they have to decide between a breakfast grab-n-go, a breakfast after first bell (either in cafeteria or grab-n-go to be brought back to the classroom), or a breakfast-in-the-classroom with classroom delivery. Since the superintendent started the initiative I have seen breakfast participation go from around 51-52 percent to 56-57 percent. Having my superintendent and my board understanding the importance of breakfast, and promoting it, and making sure it was being implemented in my schools by each principal has really made a difference; I’m reaching a higher percentage of students than I was before. My lunch participation is around 82 percent, so I’m definitely at a different level between lunch and breakfast. It’s still our goal to reach more kids with school breakfast, and we’re trying to do that by making sure our schools that don’t have higher participation are being counseled and encouraged. We also find promotional ways to increase participation. We’ve worked a lot with the American Dairy Association Mideast in terms of getting Bengals gear, or tickets and game opportunities. We do lucky sticker promotions where, if a kid gets a milk or yogurt or cereal bowl with the sticker on it, they get the Bengals gear for that day. That’s been a good way to get kids excited through promoting the program.

BB: So in terms of menus, what items are popular with the kids?

One of our most popular breakfasts is cold cereal—it’s a tried-and-true option. The kids gravitate towards it. My high school athletes go for a protein option, like the peanut butter and jelly snacker bars, which are a one grain/one protein option. The hot breakfast items are always popular, but we’ve found it’s only popular when it’s cold out; the kids don’t want to come in on an August morning and pick up a turkey sausage sandwich. We purposely did a three-cycle menu, which also keeps our costs down. The three-cycle menu keeps the kids interested. The yogurt option has been great, and it has help attract the students who are calorie and nutrition conscious. We captured some of those [students] who see yogurt as a healthy option, so that’s been a good option for breakfast.

BB: Take us through the process of getting the reimbursable vending machines.

We were lucky to receive a grant through the American Association of School Administrators and the Walmart Foundation. The breakfast grant allowed us to purchase nineteen reimbursable meal vending machines. The vending machines we have we really like, and chose specifically because when the student walks up they enter their PIN number–the same one they would enter in line at our point-of-sale system–and then they choose a window. There are eight different levels, and they choose which row they like—one might be peanut butter snackers, one might be cold cereal, one might be yogurt, one might be mozzarella cheese stick—and they press the button and it vends out a complete meal for them. That’s different from some other vending machines that we’ve seen, where the kids will have to press a button for a meal and a button for the milk, and if they don’t choose both buttons that won’t count as a reimbursable meal. We thought it was important to get the model that ensures vending out a complete reimbursable meal. Because these vending machines actually connect into our POS system, so when a child comes in and punches their PIN number in it connects to the cafeteria, so if the child comes through to get another breakfast, for example, the system will notify the cashier and ask for payment, so the accountability is there because of that tie-in with our POS. Compliance at state level was very important to us.

BB: Looking ahead, briefly, to the new meal patterns, will the changes be easily incorporated into the vending machine delivery method?

The vending machines are set up so that when the new breakfast regulations go into place, it won’t be a problem to add the additional one-half cup of fruit into the same vend-out meal. Every child will still be vended out the milk, one cup of fruit, and either one protein/one grain or two grains.

BB: Tell us about your point-of-sale system. It sounds great!

Our POS is district wide, and we just implemented that last year. We’ve always had a computerized system, but it was in-house developed and 27 years old and written in COBOL! It was on its last legs so we invested in a POS system that runs district-wide. It’s been wonderful for us because here at CPS we have a mobile student body; a student at one school this month may be at another school next month. That student’s PIN number carries them through their entire 12 years with us. With Provision 2 now we are able to do ticker counts, and enter in bulk numbers, and our POS system will automatically break down according to the approved P2 baseline free/reduced percentage. The POS system has been a blessing. Last year when we did the new regulations—we implemented a year ahead of time—our overall expenses went down! Our participation went up, but our expenses went down! And when we finally calculated it back, we saw that our schools’ inventories were much more reasonable, their ordering was more in line with what they needed not what they thought they needed because there was better regulation on what was in-house. The system would tell them what to order so there wouldn’t be so much extra ordering.

BB: Who is in charge of stocking the vending machines?

The vending machines are fully stocked with meals we package and prepare; we are in-house, we don’t work with a food management company. So whatever we would serve in our breakfast lines in the cafeteria that day are also packaged and served out of the reimbursable meal vending machines. We go up and at the end of lunch each day we re-stock with breakfast for the next morning; after breakfast we stock with lunches. That is going to start right after Labor Day. We are going to do both reimbursable meals and some a la carte items.

BB: Thanks for sharing your story with us today, Jessica. Is there anything else you want people to know about Cincinnati Public Schools’ school breakfast programs?

The national trend is tracking obesity going upward, but Cincinnati is tracking obesity going downward. We partner with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and they come in and do BMI readings on the kids. We recently received data on our third graders, who were measured last year, and their comparison to where they were in kindergarten shows a decrease in overweight and obese kids. We know that there is an impact—our healthy changes are impacting how kids are changing their overall lifestyle. I think it’s interesting that our district is the only large urban district in the state of Ohio to receive the “effective” rating, which is the second-highest rating you can achieve in Ohio, by academic standards. I think that is part of our emphasis on nutrition—we serve students fresh fruit, fresh produce, and breakfast every day and I think that’s helped them be ready to perform academically.

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6 Responses to Reimbursable Vending Machines Change the Face of Breakfast at Cincinnati Public Schools

  1. Stacy Smith says:

    I would also love to receive more information on the vending machines you use. This is a great innovative idea!

  2. I would like to know more details about the program and especially the vending machines. I could not tell how the vending machines work from the images in the article. I look forward to hearing more details.

    • Christina says:

      Hi Carrie! We would love to put you in touch with Jessica Shelly. We recently spoke with her about the vending machines again, and she’s excited to share that innovation with colleagues. We will send you an email.

  3. Pingback: August 2015 In the News: Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Goes Back to School

  4. Pingback: Happy School Nutrition Employee Week!

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