Food for thought: Sonoma school buys vending machine for books

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Goodbye 3 Musketeers, hello “Three Musketeers.”

El Verano Elementary School is poised to be the first school in California to sport a book vending machine on its campus. The new paperback dispenser is scheduled to be installed in the school office later this month.

The machine has been re-purposed by the Buffalo-based Global Vending Group. The company has been doing custom retrofitting of snack and cigarette machines for more than a decade. Today, the book vending machines are the fastest growing segment of their market.

The company’s marketing manager, Conner Russo, said the machines have surged in popularity on the East Coast and the trend is now headed west.

A local teacher tagged El Verano principal Maite Iturri in a Facebook post about Global Vending’s book dispensers and Iturri said she “was instantly struck by how well the idea matches our literacy vision.”

Iturri was on the phone with the company the same day.

Schools use special gold “I Love Reading” tokens provided by Global Vending to reward behavior or actions they want to reinforce.

“Staff will identify students who exhibit behaviors and attitudes we want as a school to see,” said Iturri. Students will receive a raffle ticket and Iturri will pull winners weekly.

Schools can choose any publisher to stock their machines and can choose the titles that reinforce their values or curriculum. Russo noted that a school district in Buffalo stocked its book vending machines with titles focused on diversity and heritage.

“We will be stocking our machine with books that highlight equity, inclusion and social justice,” said Itturi. “We want our students to see themselves in the books they read.” This is not easy to make happen, said Iturri, as only 7 percent of current publications have been written by people of color.

“There are tons of titles that fit the machines and we didn’t force schools to use any particular publisher,” Russo said.

Global Vending can create custom wrapped machines in a school’s colors or a specific message.

The “Inchy the Bookworm” branded machines cost around $3,500 each. Iturri said that El Verano parent groups have been fundraising for the machine for months to cover both the initial cost and then the book refilling. The Sonoma Valley Education Foundation also kicked in $1,000 last week.

Iturri said that more fundraising will be needed to keep the machine filled with books.

The book vending machines are a passion project for Global Vending President Jay Blumberg. He came up with the idea with a local Buffalo educator when they got to talking about literacy challenges in their area. Blumberg quickly made it happen, developing a prototype and meeting with schools and book publishers to get their support for their program.

He said his company is getting great feedback from teachers, principals, students and parents.

“You always wonder if what you are doing is making a difference,” he said. “But this really seems to be, and if these machines change one life or 100, it will be worth it.”

Russo said he comes from a family of educators.

“I love reading now but definitely didn’t as a kid,” he said. “I wish my school had something like this so I could have discovered this passion earlier.”

Blumberg likes the idea of the machines being placed in visible locations. “Every day kids will walk by and reading will be top of mind,” he said.

Blumberg’s company received orders this week from Mexico and Canada. “We would love for this idea to take off worldwide, there is no reason it should only be a U.S. phenomena,” he said.

“It feels great to part of something larger than yourself,” said Russo.

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