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Vending Machine Is a Healthy Choice

Watertown, Massachusetts--On a cold, sunny morning here, the break room at Perkins School for the Blind is packed with students, teachers and aides maneuvering their way alongside a bank of tables heaped with snack foods.

Samantha Lylis, 15, is devouring a cup of cheese puffs while slipping a granola bar into her jacket pocket. Eager to get to the next table, she allows a visitor to guide her toward the chocolate soy milk. Tasting it, she exclaims, "Mmm! Vanilla yogurt smoothie! I like this the best."

The Perkins students are participating in a taste test sponsored by Stonyfield Farms, the New Hampshire-based yogurt company. The products are being tested for the school's new vending machine, which will come compliments of Stonyfield's Healthy Vending Machines program, initiated by the company in 2003, as a response to the increase in obesity among school-age children. Stonyfield loans schools machines stocked with snacks that meet specific nutritional guidelines, which is one way to get healthier food into schools, says president Gary Hirshberg.

At Perkins, where nutritionist Margaret Loeper Vasquez has been addressing students' eating and exercise habits for the past two years, there has been some resistance to change, she says, but at the taste test students seem excited about the new choices.

Over his third strawberry yogurt tube, Core Kadlik, 14, says, "I think it's incredible. At first I was skeptical, but now I'm like, man, it's great."

His friend, Morgayne Mulkern, 11, agrees. "I really like having choices," she says.

Both students think healthy snacks would be good for the school; the vending machine will be stocked with the students' favourite items from the taste test.

Hirshberg got the idea for the vending machines one day when he learned that his son had pizza, chocolate milk and Skittles for lunch that day. The father of three says, "I was feeding millions [of people] cups of yogurt every day, and here was my own son eating Skittles for lunch."

At Perkins, the new vending machine is part of a series of changes Loeper Vasquez has been implementing since she joined the staff three years ago. "I was under the impression that our kids were heavier," she says, and after some research, she found she was correct. Blind students, she points out, are more likely to be sedentary than their peers who can see. And blind children have a particular set of challenges when it comes to managing their weight and their health. "It's hard to teach portion control or body awareness," says the nutritionist.

Loeper Vasquez has added more fruits and vegetables and whole grains to the daily menus. She's also started a walking club and changed many offerings in the snack bar. "We still have candy bars," she says, "but now they're miniature."

She's hoping that snacks such as cheddar soy crisps, wasabi green peas and fruit leather will become a hit with the students. But she's also realistic. "They're typical teenagers," she says. "So they like to bellyache about the food at school--no matter what it is."

Reprinted from the Boston Globe, March 30, 2005.

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