UC Davis installs Plan B vending machine

ALEXA FONTANILLA / AGGIE

ARC vending machine sells morning-after pills, emergency contraceptives, condoms, other birth control

UC Davis joined several universities in the United States in implementing a vending machine that dispenses morning-after pills, condoms, other forms of birth control, tampons and lubricant on March 31. The vending machine, located in an Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) study room across from the Amazon mailboxes, also sells Advil and Tylenol.

Parteek Singh, a former ASUCD senator and a fourth-year managerial economics major, has worked with the Student Health and Wellness Center (SHWC) and Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) since the fall of 2015 to advocate for this vending machine. Singh believes the discrete, readily-available and convenient ability to purchase emergency contraceptives and birth control on campus will bolster reproductive health and promote safe sex.

“Fall of 2015, I ran for ASUCD elections, and the Plan B vending machine was one of my platforms,” Singh said. “My friends proposed this idea, actually. They told me about a Plan B vending machine in Pennsylvania — Shippensburg University. At the time, this seemed like one of the most impossible things to do, like ‘What? You’re running on a Plan B vending machine? That’s never going to happen! That’s going to be so expensive!’ People were excited but it didn’t seem very realistic at that time.”

Lack of easy access to birth control and emergency contraceptives in a college town teeming with thousands of young adults seemed like a strange juxtaposition to Singh. He began to explore some of the obstacles UC Davis students faced regarding safe sex and proper reproductive health.

“I talked to more of my friends, and there was some concerns brought up about there being only one 24/7 pharmacy, Safeway in North Davis,” Singh said. “My friends shared some incidents where they went to get some Plan B on a Friday night, and the store was all out. And they weren’t getting a new shipment until Monday. These stories and talking to my friends persuaded me to run on this platform. Also, with the Plan B vending machine, you don’t have to face another person when you buy this.”

Evelyn Aron, a second-year anthropology major, supported the idea of the Plan B vending machine but is unsure if it was located in the best place.

“It should be somewhere else,” Aron said. “Maybe the Student Wellness Center or somewhere where students go for those things, not the ARC.”

Singh understands student skepticism about the location, but he explained how temperature affects contraceptive drug efficacy and degradation, which limited the location options.  

“We looked at a couple options on campus for where to put it,” Singh said. “The original option was to have it 24/7 available, and we were thinking outside the MU [Memorial Union], maybe outside the SCC [Student Community Center]. The machine doesn’t only have emergency contraceptive, it has other medicine too, and with the temperature change — say, over the summer — it gets really hot. It wouldn’t be stable to keep the medicine in the machine. We decided on the ARC. It’s located inside one of the study rooms. People know where the ARC is, people know where the study rooms are, and at the same time, it’s still kind of discrete and private because it’s inside the study room and by the Amazon box. The fact that it has other medicine and other products in it, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person is buying Plan B.”

Emilia Aguirre, a sexual and mental health awareness educator at the SHCS, worked closely with Singh in advocating for the machine, a process that spanned well over a year. The interim director of SHCS Cory Vu also supported Singh’s project.

“SHCS has been working very closely with Parteek and was instrumental in gathering the research, assessment of student need and data to offer contraceptive vending machines,” Aguirre said. “My role was essentially to get everyone in the same room and get the conversation going. Overall, it was a very positive experience.”

Singh views this vending machine as a step in the right direction amid the current presidential administration’s restrictions on sexual health clinics like Planned Parenthood. However, in advocating for increased sexual health and availability of medicine, Singh understands conflicting ideologies about reproduction will always be present on a college campus.

“I think this is good news,” Singh said. “[It’s] something finally good to hear after all the moving back on women’s health rights and LGBT rights that’s been happening because of the new administration. I remember someone I was friends with telling me how some girl was sitting next to him. My picture popped up on the girl’s news feed and she was yelling out, ‘I hate this guy — he’s trying to bring an abortion machine on campus!’ or something. And I was reached out to by a pro-life student organization to introduce a pamphlet in the vending machine avoiding the idea of abortion completely. We had a genuine conversation.”

Singh’s initial proposal was rejected by the school, so he had to reform the venture. He reintroduced the project as a more all-encompassing student health-oriented machine, with headache and pain medication alongside the morning after pills and condoms. After an arduous process beginning in the fall of 2015, the vending machine was finally approved this past winter. In December 2016, Singh ordered the vending machine, which is on a two-year lease.

“One of the hurdles we faced was if it was legal in California pharmacy bylaws,” Singh said. “But it is legal, and the director of the SHWC told us that if it was legal, that she was for the idea. The goal was to get their support and then take it to Student Affairs and get them to pay for the machine. I met the vice chancellor and said ‘give me another chance, let me present this idea again.’ During that time, I changed the concept from a Plan B vending machine to a health and wellness vending machine and added more products, so it’s less controversial.”

After this, Aggie Studios helped Singh conduct surveys to gauge student interest in the project. Singh then reintroduced his idea to the SHWC and presented his project as wholly boosting student health and wellness — not just sexual and reproductive health. He finally got approval from the SHWC around last Spring Quarter, and the vending machine was installed on March 31.

“It’s just amazing to see this on campus,” Singh said. “When I heard the news that we got this on campus over spring break, I went there on Sunday night and we took a picture and I posted it as my profile. People were really excited. It was shared by 1,400 people. I see this as my baby! When you go into these meetings with bigger directors, at least one person in the room is like, ‘Who’s this kid?’ But while I’m here, I wanted to fight for this machine. That was my journey with this vending machine.”

The project has the potential to spread to more schools — three other campuses have reached out about the machine to Singh, who also plans on speaking with students senators from different UC campuses about the venture.
Written by: Aaron Liss — campus@theaggie.org