Vending machines will play an increasingly important role in school catering as lunch hours shrink and children spend more time at school, claims the Health Education Trust (HET).
Speaking at an Automatic Vending Association conference in Peterborough last week, HET director Joe Harvey said that pupils would use machines more as the shape of the school day changed.
"The growth will be dramatic, as lunch hours shrink and schools increasingly offer before- and after-school care," he said. "A good-quality vending machine can fill the need with a 24/7 grab-and-go service."
Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) chairman Kevin MacKay agreed that more kids would use vending machines but insisted this would not be at the expense of school meals. "If the machines are stocked with healthy food, they will have their place," he said.
"But, as awareness increases, traditional catering will also get stronger over time."
The trust's view that vending is set to boom is not uniformly supported, however. Food service consultant Julian Edwards questioned whether children would readily buy healthy food from machines currently dominated by brands such as Mars, Walkers and Coke.
"They dominate vending at the moment and kids might spend their own money on these products at local shops," he said. "It could be local retailers who see a boom."
He warned that machines stocked with home-made food with short shelf-lives could produce more waste.
Consultant Vic Laws said that vending companies would have to lower their prices before uptake grew dramatically.