A new vending machine at Northeastern is increasing access to safer sex supplies for students

vending machine with wellness products inside
The new wellness vending machine in Marino Recreation Center provides students with access to free safe sex products and emergency contraceptives that cost a fraction of what pharmacies charge. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Those passing through Marino Recreation Center might notice a new addition to the regular selection of vending machines. As of last week, the university’s first wellness vending machine was open for business on the Boston campus, offering emergency contraceptives, condoms, personal lubricant and basic painkillers.

University Health and Counseling Services, the Office of Prevention and Education at Northeastern and the student-run sexual health group NU Share were all involved in the project to expand access to sexual wellness and emergency contraception. It’s an issue that’s become even more important in light of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the additional economic and health challenges it presents, students say.

Ren Birnholz and Alexandra Nieto headshots as well as them standing with the vending machine
Ren Birnholz and Alexandra Nieto, president and vice president of student group NU Share respectively, were integral to getting the wellness vending machine off the ground. They hope the machine will “push the needle further” when it comes to emergency contraceptive access. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Whether it be financial barriers, whether it be students are from other states and when they go home they don’t have access to it, there are so many different reasons why people need access to emergency contraceptives,” said Ren Birnholz, president of NU Share. “They need it quickly and they need it cost effectively.”

UHCS and OPEN started planning for the project over the summer, just as NU Share launched a petition to create a wellness vending machine on Northeastern’s Boston campus. Initially, the idea for the vending machine was that it would provide only sexual health supplies, the same supplies that Northeastern provides through its free sexual health supplies delivery service, Frisky Husky. Although Frisky Husky has been received well by students, it only delivers to on-campus residence halls.

“Over the years, students who live on campus have been able to order sexual health supplies to their residence hall room, but we know we have a number of students who live off campus or for whom delivery to their residence hall room might not be the most appropriate,” says Christine Civiletto, assistant vice chancellor of wellness and mental health clinician for UHCS. “So, we wanted to make sure those students could also access supplies as readily as possible.”

“Cost was also a big selling point for college students, and also just closeness,” says Alexandra Nieto, vice president of NU Share. “Students want it on campus, so it’s not out of reach in any way. A lot of the local pharmacies aren’t that close, like a 10-to-15-minute walk, so this being right by the dorms, right by classrooms, is amazing.”

All sexual health supplies in the vending machine are free and provided by UCHS, except for emergency contraceptives, which are priced at $7. It’s a price Birnholz is proud of, considering these products are normally $35 to $50 at a pharmacy.

But those who use the vending machine will notice that it offer more than just sexual wellness supplies like emergency contraceptives, internal and external condoms, menstrual products and personal lubricant. Students can also buy more general supplies like Advil, which Kelliane Carfi, director of wellness initiatives at OPEN, hopes will make students more comfortable with using the machine. 

One of the goals with the project was to decrease the stigma associated with sex and sexual wellness by placing the machine front and center in Marino and making it easier for students to walk up and use it without fear of being judged.

“We want to make sure that people feel comfortable talking about sex and talking about consent, so that’s a lot of the work we’re doing in general but also through this program,” Carfi says. “A big piece of that is not having it be a taboo topic and having it just be something that’s part of the campus life here in a more open way.”

Only a week after it launched, the wellness vending machine has already been a success. Late last week, several products were already sold out––there are regular restocks––and Civiletto says there are already plans to install a wellness vending machine on the Mills College at Northeastern campus this semester. 

Birnholz and Nieto are excited about potentially expanding the product selection to include pregnancy tests. They’re also hopeful about installing a second vending machine on the Boston campus, which Civiletto says is “not off the table by any means.”

“This is already just a celebration of reproductive justice for Northeastern students,” Nieto says. “The machine has already started a great conversation on campus, and we really just want to keep the conversation going.”

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