ANCHORAGE - High school students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough will have to make it through lunchtime next year without access to vending machines for pop, candy and snacks.
A state audit last spring faulted the district for putting the machines too close to cafeterias where students eat federally funded free and reduced-cost meals.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture rule bars schools from offering competitive foods, especially those with little nutritional value, at the same times that student meals are served.
If Mat-Su schools fail to comply, the district could lose nearly $1.75 million in federal meal money. So starting next fall, school administrators will move vending machines or block access to them during lunch.
State reviewers do not often bring back reports that vending machines are competing with school lunches, said Joan Gone, school meals administrator with the state Department of Education and Early Development.
"We probably do 15 or 20 reviews a year," Gone said. "It's not frequent."
Schools rely on vending machines to help pay for sports and other extracurricular activities. At bigger Mat-Su high schools, such as Wasilla, the machines bring in more than $40,000 a year.
"For years, I've wished the vending machines weren't there," said Linda Stoll, the district's director of nutrition services. "I'm glad it's being addressed, but that's a big loss of revenue for the schools."
Palmer High School principal Wolfgang Winter said students will still spend money in the machines.
"Initially, there'll be a little bit of a monetary impact, but I think the students will adjust," he said. "They'll just make their purchases ahead of time and put them in their backpacks or their lockers."
To truly wean students from soda and unhealthy snacks, Winter and other people say, schools need to stock vending machines with healthier choices.
Over the long term, he said, Palmer is considering replacing pop in vending machines with juice and water and seeing that food machines are stocked with better products.
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