LAND O'LAKES — Until a week ago, Rushe Middle School sixth-grader Joey Warren didn't know that kids could get snacks out of vending machines at school.
"I've only seen them on cartoon shows," Joey, 13, said, staring at the shiny new snack machines that had arrived in the cafeteria days earlier. "But I've never seen them in a school. They're cool and stuff."
The two vending machines generated instant buzz at Rushe Middle, where kids couldn't wait to plug in their quarters and dollars.
"They have things that kids would buy," said sixth-grader Kyralexa Alvira, 12.
Things like baked chips, fruit leather, and reduced calorie cookies and muffins, and even healthier items such as hummus, carrots and ranch dressing, yogurt and peanut butter.
"They meet the Alliance for a Healthier Generation snack guidelines," said Rick Kurtz, food and nutrition services director for Pasco County schools. "It's only healthy snacks that are available."
Since the start of February, every Pasco County middle and high school has received two snack vending machines, one that's refrigerated and one that isn't. The district has filled them with items that students enjoy, but also that meet strict standards limiting salt, fat and calories.
Kurtz called the district's timing "impeccable," noting that the federal government has launched a new offensive against junk food in schools as it prepares to reauthorize the Childhood Nutrition Act. He suggested that vending machines can play a role.
"It's not the vending machine that's the culprit," Kurtz said. "It's the items that you put into the vending machine."
Using the machines offers other side benefits, he added.
It makes snacks available to students at times when the cafeteria is closed, for instance.
"Everyone after school comes here to buy stuff," noted Rushe Middle sixth-grader Valerie St. Germain, 12, a member of the afternoon drama club. "They're hungry."
"It's better in the morning," chimed in sixth-grader Chris Connell, 12. "You don't have to wait for breakfast. … It's a good selection."
Such access boosts the cafeteria's bottom line, as does the availability during mealtimes. Kurtz noted, for example, that Centennial Middle saw its a la carte sales drop by $15 in one day after the machines arrived, but the machines had $50 in sales, for a net gain.
The vending machines also help keep the wait for lunch shorter — a fact not lost on the Rushe students.
"You don't have to stay in line in the cafeteria just to get a snack," Kyralexa observed. "It's better and it's faster."
In short order, the district hopes to hook the vending machines up to the food service computers. That way students won't even need money — all they'll need is their student ID number and an active meal account.
Fivay High School, which opens in Hudson in the fall, is set up to have 20 vending machines all hard-wired to the district system to move in that direction.
Early response to the new vending options has been great overall, said Andree Lipscombe, who runs the cafeteria vending at Rushe Middle.
"They love it," Lipscombe said. "They were so excited. The first week we got them, we were waiting for certain items to come in."
Apple slices sell out daily, she said. Cereal bars are popular in mornings, and of course, the reduced fat chips. It's tough, she noted, to balance the truly healthy foods with the items that the students want.
It seems to be working — although not for everyone.
"They should add regular Cheetos," suggested sixth-grader Chyanna Spaulding, 12. "They should serve french fries. They should serve Combos, and brownies."
That's highly unlikely. Many students are happy with what they have.
"It's kind of like something that is new. It's kind of fun," said sixth-grader Faythe Mombleau, 12, who was pleased to have vegetarian selections to meet her dietary choices. "I enjoy them. So I'll probably use them some more."
Times staff photographer Keri Wiginton contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.