Appetite Or Appearances

By Christine Schaffran

The push to encourage patrons to make healthier choices has trickled all the way down to the vending machines that used to supply Snickers, M&Ms, and Doritos in recreation centers. And while most would say that residents are thrilled at the prospect of being able to choose healthier snacks, is this really being done so in practice? The responses are as mixed as the food choices in the machines.


“The community loved the idea that we were doing healthy vending with lots of great feedback and kudos, but frankly, in practice, we didn’t see people clamoring to eat the healthy options,” says Susan Kalish, director of marketing and communications for the city of Arlington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources in Virginia. “Partly this could be due to the fact that the healthy vending line was a bit more expensive than the traditional junk food you find in vending machines. What’s more, the healthy brands don’t have the same brand recognition as Doritos or M&Ms.”

The Government Steps In
Although companies such as Fresh Healthy Vending and HUMAN Healthy Vending have been around for several years, more people took notice after the USDA implemented its “Smart Snacks in Schools” regulations in February. The mandates restrict snacks in vending machines to:

  • Fewer than 200 calories per serving
  • No more than 200 milligrams of sodium
  • Less than 35 percent of calories from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat
  • Caffeine-free drinks.

Although the mandates apply only to schools, some people have taken the initiative to apply these efforts to parks and recreation facilities as well.

“Healthy vending is a key option for communities to support the community with healthy food choices. The trick, however, is to not force people to only eat healthy, but to provide the option along with an education campaign to help people do the right thing,” Kalish explains. “For example, in office buildings we aren’t going 100-percent healthy options. Most of the vending customers in our office buildings are adults, and adults have the right to choose. Therefore, we started with 50-percent healthy and over time are moving to 100-percent … if the market will bear it. For vending machines that kids generally use—those in our parks and centers—we only stock 100-percent healthy. Kids may not have been educated to make healthy choices, and their guardians may not be there to help them choose.”

While some are transitioning to make their vending machines healthier, others have decided to eliminate sweets altogether.

“We realized that if we put sugary options next to healthy options, kids will make the non-healthy choice almost every time,” says Jayson Swigart, facility manager at the North Boulder Recreation Center in Boulder, Colo.

He added that the rec center’s close proximity to school buildings made it difficult to resist the switch from sweets to sensible treats.

“The high school kids were just coming down in droves and draining our machines because they couldn’t get their sugary drinks in school anymore,” he says.

Swigart adds that, although revenue has decreased since junk food was swapped for healthy vending, he believes it’s the right choice.

“Parents are happy because they know they can’t control what their kids are doing all the time,” he says. “But now if they give them $5 to grab a snack, the worst they can buy is a chocolate nut bar from Nature’s Company or something like that.”

In an effort to bring awareness to the new options, Kalish says Arlington parks is incorporating the message into its FitArlington program, which promotes the importance of physical activity and encourages residents to make fitness and health a way of life. She adds that bringing awareness instead of forcing the issue will help in the battle of the bulge.

“One of the cool aspects of the new program … is that the machines will be wrapped with a FitArlington logo on them to easily identify them as healthy vending. And what’s more, the private facilities can use the same wrap if they choose the healthy vending line, too” she says. “So, hopefully in time, people in Arlington will be able to look over at a vending machine, see its distinctive look, and know they will have access to better choices.”

The Migration In The North
In Canada, similar guidelines were adopted in September 2008 and revised in 2010. Known as the School Food Guidelines, the 36-page document also attempts to steer people to make healthier food choices and limit foods high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt.

Lisa Bealle, recreation programmer in North Vancouver, says the Harry Jerome Community Recreation Centre made the switch to healthy vending 3 years ago, and the transition was met with mixed results.

“Some people still don’t like it, but the response has been more positive than negative,” she says. “Of course, we work across the street from a Chevron [gas station], so they can still go buy a chocolate bar if they wanted to.”

Bealle adds she would like to see others in “private industry” convert to healthier alternatives in order to reinforce the message that snacks don’t have to have empty calories.

“I’m so used to the healthy choices it almost shocks me to see a real vending machine anymore.”

Christine Schaffran is the editor-in-chief for PRB . Reach her at .


Small Steps For Healthier Choices
Vending machines don’t have to have company logos on the side that promote healthy food in order to dispense sensible selections. Ask your local vendor to provide the healthier options:

  • Sun Chips Harvest Cheddar
  • Dole Tropical Fruit Salad
  • Nutri-Grain Bar Apple Cinn.
  • David Sunflower Seeds
  • Dole Peach Slices
  • Nutri-Grain Bar Strawberry
  • Baked Doritos Nacho Cheese
  • Dannon Cherry Yogurt 99% Fat Free
  • Kars Sweet and Salty Mix
  • Sun Chips Garden Salsa
  • Dippin’ Stix Carrots and Ranch
  • Kars Salted Peanuts
  • Chex Mix Traditional
  • Deja Blue Water
  • Zoo Animal Crackers
  • Act II Popcorn Lite Butter
  • Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
  • Planters Trail Mix
  • Braids Holiday Pretzels
  • Kellogg’s Rice Krispies
  • Pop-Tart Brown Sugar and Cinnamon
  • Welch’s Fruit Snacks
  • Kellogg’s Smart Start Cereal
  • Pop-Tart Strawberry
  • Quaker Instant Oatmeal
  • Nature Valley-Oat/Honey Granola Bar
  • Propel Fitness Water


Profit-Loss, Gain, Or Remain The Same?
In December 2009, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) conducted a pilot project to vend healthier foods in order to determine whether vending healthier snacks and food produced lower profits. Results over a three-month period revealed that, although the vendor made as much as $98.85 less than the same month the previous year on one of the snack machines, he made as much as $225.74 more than the same month the previous year on another snack machine. For the 3-month period, profits increased $671.99. The largest increase in profit was in the vending machine dispensing food and non-carbonated beverages.

Source: The Association of State & Territorial Public Health Nutrition Directors