Schools and caterers can make a profit from selling healthier drinks in their vending machines, according to the Food Standards Agency.
The agency has produced a guide to help schools avoid the pitfalls of an 18-month pilot it ran at 12 schools in Hertfordshire, Wales, Devon and Cumbria, in conjunction with the Health Education Trust and the Dairy Council.
More than one-third of the 70,000 healthy drinks sold in less than six months of the trial were milk or flavoured milk products. Pure fruit juices were also popular (especially apple, orange and pineapple) along with still and flavoured waters.
But schools are unlikely to match the income made from more expensive fizzy, sugary drinks, which can generate up to £15,000 profit a year in large secondary schools.
Of nine schools that completed the pilot, two made a small loss, three recorded profits of £300-£520 over 10-15 weeks, while two achieved profits of £863 and £1,283 over 18 and 24 weeks, respectively.
The fact that most vending machines are designed for cans, bottles and confectionery rather than tetra packs was a big stumbling block, said Joe Harvey, director of the Health Education Trust.
But he said new machines were being developed that combined the capacity of can vendors with the flexibility of carousel machines and would transform school vending over the next three to five years.
Harvey said it was vital to involve students in choosing products and deciding where to place the machines. He recommended this should be near the catering team, who can keep them full and deal with problems such as jams and lost change.
With child obesity and nutrition in the spotlight, the big contract caterers are responding to change and experimenting with healthy vending.
Scolarest, Compass's schools division, found that sales grew "significantly" when it trialled a range of healthier drink options in Selecta vending machines in place of Coca-Cola machines.
Steven Watts, Scolarest's managing director for secondary schools, stressed the importance of retaining a reduced line of popular fizzy brands. Sales had slumped at one school that sold only water.
Carl Morris, sales and marketing for education at Sodexho, said that although water was a best seller, he found milk products sold better in milk bars than in vending machines.
For more information, visit www.food.gov.uk or www.healthedtrust.com
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 14 October 2004