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Employment: Vending Stands and Cafeterias

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      Vending stand - date unknown (1930s or 1940s)The federal Randolph-Sheppard Act in 1936 gave blind persons the opportunity to operate vending stands in federal properties. The Act was intended to give blind persons a means of securing a reliable income. As a result, blind person ran a number of small stands in the lobbies of federal buildings, such as post offices and courthouses, to sell convenience items, such as candy, gum, newspapers and magazines.

      In Iowa, the management of the federal vending stand program fell to the Iowa Commission for the Blind. The first vending stand operating under this program opened in Sioux City in 1939. However, for many years the Commission undertook very few activities related to this program. (Read a 1936 letter from Ethel Holmes, Commission Director, to an blind Iowan asking about the vending program.)

      Notes from the June 1, 1939 Commission Board meeting reveal the administrative issues associated with the vending program. During that meeting, members held a "discussion of the refusal of the Iowa City council to permit the University Hospital to have a permit to sell cigarettes, it was moved and seconded to ask Mr. Joseph Clunk of the Federal Bureau in Washington to come to Iowa City and talk to the council of the work of establishing vending stands in post offices and other buildings for blind people. The superintended told Mrs. Holmes that he was willing to have a stand put up by the commission if the consent of the council could be obtained for a permit for cigarettes, as that is the article most needed. They have candy vending machines, gum, and pop."

      In 1947, a Commission staff member attended an institute in Washington D.C. on the program and reported to Commission board members that he found the program to offer "one of the very best" employment opportunities for the blind. Yet, the Commission did not promote the program widely nor advocated for the opening of these type of vending stands. In a 1958 letter assessing the state of the Commission's services, Malcom Jasper noted, "The vending stand program, as you know, is in need of expansion and improvement. There are now twelve stands in the state and Iowa should have at least thirty to thirty-five stands. It may also be pointed out that comparative figures on the earnings of blind stand operators in Iowa and surrounding states in this region show that Iowa stand operators last year earned an average of twelve hundred dollars. Average earnings in other states ranged to a high of thirty-three hundred dollars per stand operator. These states are: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota." (Malcom Jasper served briefly as Director of the Iowa Commission for the Blind between 1957 - 1958.)

      B,E,P Cafeteria - date unknown

      The story of the vending program changed significantly in 1958 when Kenneth Jernigan became the Director of the Commission. Jernigan built a robust vending program called the Business Enterprise Program (BEP). In 1966, when construction began a new federal building, he submitted a request to the General Services Administration (GSA) to acquire the right for a blind vendor to operate a full service food operation in the building. The GSA initially resisted his request to install a blind cafeteria manager at the site. Jernigan's request was one of the first, if not the first attempt by a blind vendor to provide this type of service. After Jernigan sought assistance from U.S. Senator Jack Miller on the issue, GSA relented, with concessions that if the Iowa Commission for the Blind was granted the contract, they would agree to hire other disabled persons whenever possible. This event led to significantly better opportunities for blind Iowans and others across the nation.

      Blind vendor working with snack items on displayIn 1969, Iowa enacted a "mini" Randolph-Sheppard act, which required all public agencies, except the Board of Regents, schools and the State Department of Social Services, to make a "good faith" effort to contract with the Iowa Commission for the Blind for cafeteria and vending machine services in all public buildings before negotiating with private vendors and concessionaires

      Blind vendors did meet resistance to establishment of vending programs in some instances. Under the leadership of John Taylor, BEP program administrator and later Director of the Commission, the Commission assisted vendors who faced challenges in the 1970s from those who opposed the program. (Read newspaper articles on vending program issues from 1970s.)

      Blind vendor filling candy machineThe Business Enterprises program continues to operate under the management of the Iowa Department for the Blind. A total of 35 vending sites are located in federal, state, and roadside locations across the state.


      The Commission Board Meeting minutes are included in the Iowa Blind History archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.

      Image #1 Undated photo labeled "Iowa Blind Commission Opens First stand in state in Post Office here". Iowa Blind History Archive, Box 8, Folder 5 

      Image #2 Undated photo labeled "diamond scientific cafeteria (bep) south of pleasant hill." Iowa Blind History Archive, Box 8, Folder 5 

      Image #3  Undated photo labeled "National Animal Disease Lab Cafeteria - Ames, IA" Iowa Blind History Archive, Box 8, Folder 5

      Image #4 Undated digital photo property of the Iowa Department for the Blind.