Each of Keaton Allen and Jaylyn Miller Allen’s three children pressed a button on the red vending machine and watched their selections tumble from the shelf. But their money wasn’t buying them potato chips or sodas.

The children’s purchases that day were small packages representing books and jump ropes, chickens and fish — all headed to one of seven charities that have partnered with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to accept donations from “Giving Machines” this holiday season.

Five vending machines around the world have gathered about $1.3 million worth of donations for the church’s campaign since it began three weeks back.

“We believe, being members of that church, that our savior is our everything,” Miller Allen said. “He is our light. And when we give service and share, we’re sharing what we believe and know about him.”

The initiative repurposes a familiar object, the vending machine, as a way to give back.

Charitable giving is an important aspect of the Mormon faith. Members are asked to fast for one Sunday each month and donate to the church the money they would have spent on their meals. The church says it then uses those offerings to help people in need.

The Book of Mormon, a sacred text of the church, also charges members with caring for marginalized people, said Gerrit van Dyk, a librarian of Mormon history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. A report in 2012 from the Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Mormons say helping the poor is essential to their faith.

“While these vending machines are certainly an outgrowth of Christian discipleship, they allow for a broader view of charity,” van Dyk said in an email. “That is, whether believer or not, we all are human beings, and we can help each other in our existence.”

The Giving Machines project started in Salt Lake City in 2017 and expanded this year to New York City, Gilbert, Ariz., London and Manila. Donors can buy a $75 goat for Care.org, a $28 baby resuscitation kit for UNICEF USA or $18 holiday turkeys for the New York City-based West Side Campaign Against Hunger, among other options.

Giving Machines take credit cards and provide receipts for tax purposes. Donation prices range from $2 to $250, and the church covers the project’s administrative costs. The machines, located near Mormon temples or meeting houses, will be open through the end of December.

The vending machines offer a variety of gift options. (Courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Blair Garff, a New York City-based volunteer for the church, said donors have enjoyed giving money for specific items. All donations will be used for the purchased objects, or for similar items if the charity determines there’s a greater need to be filled.

“It’s lots more fun than writing a check, because you get to see and choose,” Garff said.

For the Allen family, each child got to donate an item that meant something to him or her.

“I think of the scripture in the New Testament that ‘Faith without works is dead’ — just that concept that you can’t have faith without action,” said Keaton Allen, an analyst at a public utility company. “Action is how you prove that you have faith.”

We made a visit to the #GivingMachine and let the kids pick some donations to make. We bought and sent 2 chickens and...

Posted by Keaton Allen on Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Missouri resident Dave Anthony and his wife were on vacation in New York City when they decided to stop by the Giving Machines in Lincoln Square to donate chickens and a polio vaccine.

“You can easily spend $20 and more on just lunch in NYC, but here I could see exactly what my $20 was going to provide for someone, somewhere, in need,” Anthony, 39, said in a Twitter message.

Anthony, who is Mormon, said the Giving Machines can help non-church members better understand the religion’s emphasis on serving others.

“I think especially for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s incredibly nonthreatening,” he said in a phone interview. “A lot of times when people think about our faith, they think about the missionaries traipsing door to door and trying to change you in some way.”

Evangelization is possibly a secondary purpose of the Giving Machines, said Ryan Cragun, a sociology professor at the University of Tampa who studies Mormonism. Placing the machines in public places and including signage about the church’s sponsorship helps to connect non-Mormons with the faith, he said.

This was the case for Kim Hoedeman, a co-founder of a software company in New York City. She was shopping for Christmas gifts when the brightly colored Giving Machines caught her eye. After she donated two chickens for $21, she said, a volunteer told her the machines are run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hoedeman, 44, said she considers herself agnostic but read about the church online after she learned about its connection to the Giving Machines.

“Before, it felt a little bit obscure and, I guess, a bit cultish, for lack of a better word,” Hoedeman said. “But now that they’ve shown such innovation and heart in a much broader kind of giving and taking, I certainly have a new regard for it.”