New technology-based initiatives making their way into schools could spell the end of candy and soda in vending machines. According to the School Nutrition Association, healthy vending is an emerging trend in schools nationwide. Fueled by the heightened awareness of student obesity, schools are working with companies such as Horizon Software International and School-Link Technologies to offer students better choices in vending-machine food service.

The Healthy Vending program, from Horizon Software, makes healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables available in vending machines and can track students’ purchases so parents know what they’re eating.

Another entry in healthy vending is DeliZone by VendSMARTT from School-Link Technologies. School-Link has been working to implement the program with administrators in the Corpus Christi Independent School District in Texas.

Such smart machines come with full meals or component-based selections, which give students the opportunity to buy several items, such as apples and carrots, to make up a full meal.

Students enter a PIN into a keypad, scan a bar code, or swipe a card. The machines use that information to determine the student’s lunchtime status (for instance, whether the child is eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch) and prompt the student for his or her lunchtime selections.

Healthy Vending is based on software technology that connects all vending machines to the school’s or district’s central point-of-sale system. These vending machines are enabled with Horizon OneSource, a food-service operations management system.

Food-service workers are able to determine healthy choices for the Healthy Vending machines through back-office menu planning and nutrition analysis. The system displays the nutritional value of items with the touch of a key, and it can help students learn about the nutritional value of the foods they eat.

“Junk food from school vending machines is one of the primary reasons for extra weight in children,” said Bob Williamson, chairman and CEO of Horizon Software . “Healthy Vending replaces junk vending choices with healthy choices.”

Healthy Vending can identify students making purchases and track what items each child is buying from the machines. Parents can log on to their child’s account and view what their child has purchased in the vending machines on a specific day.

The system can be extended if a school uses Horizon’s MealpayPlus, an online pre-payment system that lets parents pay for their child’s lunch online, as well as view their child’s cafeteria purchases.

“With Healthy Vending, we are able to extend the lunch time to coordinate with student schedules and offer four to five different items for lunch,” said Victor Donofrio, consulting manager at Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District in Fairfield, Calif. “We are now selling many more meals, using the same amount of labor as before. The principal is very happy with the machine and knows that every student will get a chance to eat. The food-service director is extremely happy, as we have increased our meals by five times at one site. The machine will pay for itself in 175 school days.”

“The financial impact on a school, combined with the focus of feeding children who would not normally eat a nutritious meal because of shortened lunch periods, crowded cafeterias, or long lines, justifies the need for Healthy Vending,” says Williamson.

Security is a concern, because some children might take another student’s swipe or ID card. To combat theft, Healthy Vending machines have security cameras built into them. Once a student purchases a meal, the camera takes a snapshot of the student’s face and attaches it to that purchase. If there is a problem with theft, school officials can go back to the transaction in question and see which student purchased the meal.

The cost of the machines varies by school. Horizon Software also offers a trade-in program if a school has an existing vending machine and wants to trade it in for a Healthy Vending machine, the company said.