Vending machines can be lifesavers for late-night college emergencies. Studying at midnight, desperately need a pick-me-up, and all the stores are closed? No problem—just drop a few coins, and you'll have caffeine and Doritos in your hand within seconds.
At UC Davis, located in Yolo County, California, the same speed and convenience now applies to sexual and reproductive health. Fourth-year student and former ASUCD senator Parteek Singh headed the effort to install a vending machine called "Wellness to Go," which offers a wide array of health products for students: contraceptives, tampons, menstrual cups, pain relievers, allergy medication, and over-the-counter UTI medication.
The star of the show, however, is Plan B.
Polly Paulson, the assistant director of UC Davis Community Health and Wellness, finds the media's recent focus on Plan B in the college's vending machine interesting, considering the product has been available over-the-counter in California for years.
"We're not the first in the country to offer emergency contraception by machine, and we're not the first in the state of California," Paulson said.
The machine dispenses the emergency contraceptive for $30—a lower price than what it's typically sold for at local pharmacies. A significant advantage of the machine is that it's located in the campus Activities and Recreation Center, which is open 18 hours a day. Students no longer have to deal with pharmacies that close after regular business hours and weekends, and those that are out of stock. Moreover, those who feel uncomfortable asking someone face-to-face about emergency contraceptives can now have safe access to the resource without having to identify themselves.
While the location sacrifices some privacy for the sake of safety, that decision was deliberate, says Paulson. "We wanted to make sure it was placed in a location here women would feel comfortable and safe. It's a well-lit area with lots of traffic," she said.
UC Davis student Kelly Clarke wonders if having the machine in public will end up benefitting students by reducing some of the stigma around emergency contraception. "I feel like the people who initially went to it would have to be bold, but maybe if other people see it, it would help them be more empathetic," he said.
Some students, however, are puzzled as to why the vending machine, and its offering of Plan B in particular, has attracted so much attention.
"I first saw it on the news back home," said first-year student Carina Avila, who learned about the machine over break. "I was a little surprised that it was on all the news in SoCal, and that people were against it. I'd rather people have open and safe access to it."
Fellow student Julienne Correa shares the sentiment. "I like it. It's for convenience," she said. "I don't understand why access and convenience for people is such a big deal just because of the product."
Does controversy over Plan B itself fuel people's fascination? Paulson says the product is sometimes confused with the abortion pill, RU-486, a completely different medication. Plan B does not end pregnancies—rather, it can help prevent them after unprotected sex.
"I do think it's a health equity issue, providing resources for women to manage their reproductive health in the best possible way," Paulson said. "We're very pleased to see the positive reception we're hearing from students. We really applaud Parteek for his efforts. He really did an enormous amount of work to bring it to campus."
Students Maya Sadler and Sarah Shemery hope that in addition to increasing access, the vending machine will help decrease stigma about Plan B.
"I thought it was dope," Sadler said of the vending machine. "Colleges haven't really done a good job destigmatizing Plan B. It's much more stigmatized than condoms. You can hand out condoms like candy. You can't just hand out Plan B."
"I'm a big fan of normalizing it," Shemery said. "To finally see this happen is amazing. A lot of my friends didn't know where to get it. Just knowing where it is on campus is a good step."