Healthful foods are migrating from school cafeterias to vending machines, although not without challenges.
This article first appeared in the 1 May 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Aaron Baar, Special to R&I
At the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year, Bonneville Joint School District No. 93 in Idaho Falls, Idaho, revamped its beverage vending program. Sugary softdrinks were out; water and fruit juices were in. More healthful snacks replaced some traditional vending-machine fare.
Now, nearly two-thirds of the way into the school year, the district is discovering that the revenues from vending machines aren't what they once were.
"We feel good that we're selling more nutritious stuff, but we don't have as much discretionary income," says district Superintendent Charles Shackett, noting the more-healthful foods are bringing in half as much revenue as the snack foods.
"We're doing what's right, but we're suffering the consequences."
Part of the arrangement, which was made in conjunction with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation), includes working with schools to renegotiate contracts in the interest of "mutual financial fairness," says ABA spokesperson Tracey Halliday. An online toolkit, available through the alliance, also features strategies for marketing more-healthful vending-machine options.
For their part, the vending companies have been quick to adapt-and not just at the school level. Vending companies such as Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo, Philadelphia-based Aramark and Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, The Americas Division, have established healthful-vending programs that incorporate more-healthful items into machines and use customized signage to point out healthier vending products.
"Vending has gotten a bad reputation, because in many cases people think of vending as being junk-food machines, but that doesn't have to be the case," says Margie Saidel, director of nutrition for Rye Brook, N.Y.-based Chartwells School Dining Services, a division of Compass Group.
To accommodate the trend toward healthier vending programs-particularly in schools-Chartwells has adapted its Balanced Choices foodservice program to include some vending options as well. Vending machines that are part of the company's school foodservice programs are branded with the Balanced Choices logos to emphasize how the products can fit into an overall healthful diet.
"Kids like food that's branded," Saidel says. "Our Balanced Choices logos are brightly colored and appealing."
The machines to which Saidel is referring, however, are options available with Chartwells' school dining program and are separate from the vending programs that many school districts set up previously with independent companies for the sake of generating revenue. Even Saidel admits that it's difficult for items that meet Chartwells' Balanced Choices criteria to compete with sugary and higher-fat snacks.
"It's very difficult to put a healthy item and a less-healthy item next to each other and expect students to choose a healthy item-that's an unfair choice," Saidel says. "We advocate that all the food sold in a building be of the same nutritional standards."
Despite Shackett's experience in Idaho Falls, some schools have had success switching to vending programs that focus on the sale of more-nutritious items. Old Orchard Beach (Maine) Schools, for instance, saw little revenue impact after eliminating sugary snacks and beverages from its machines in 2003.
"If there's something in the machine, and the child wants something to drink or eat, they'll use it," says Jackie Tselikis, the district's school health coordinator. She adds that although the district did not specifically market its healthier choices, nutrition instruction is a part of its schools' curriculum.
Customer education is just one strategy schools can use to maintain revenues while switching to more-healthful vending options, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.
"There are a lot of misperceptions about how profitable sugary snacks and drinks are," she says.
But, unlike with adults (see "What About the Grown-ups?"), schools may not want to tout more-nutritious snacks' health benefits at the point of purchase, Saidel says. "Some research shows that if students are given [nutrition] information, they will choose healthier products," she says. "Anecdotal evidence, however, shows the opposite."
Meanwhile, in Idaho, Shackett says his school district likely will have to raise fees to compensate for the drop in vending revenue. And although the district is no longer selling sodas and high-fat snack foods, officials say they haven't seen a significant drop in the items' consumption on school grounds.
"[The students] just stop at the convenience stores on the way to school," Shackett says. "They get it anyhow, but at least we're not marketing it to them."
What About the Grown-ups?
The trend toward more-healthful vending options isn't seen only in schools. "Corporate America wants healthier choices everywhere, in their dining options and in their vending," says Leslee McGovern, senior director of brand management for wellness at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo.
For adults, the movement toward healthier vending options began with the low-carb craze earlier in the decade, says Jonathan Peters, senior vice president of operations for Philadelphia-based Aramark Refreshment Services. Since then, the trend has evolved to include low-fat and lower-sodium items. For its Just4U for Vending program, Aramark relies on client surveys and convenience-store data to determine which products to put in its vending machines.
"We need to stay very close to the retail trends, as well as be aware of the needs of our clients and prospective clients," he says. "Baked items tend to be a good seller, [as are] low-calorie and low-carb items, and nut products."
Aramark and Sodexo have also implemented on-machine signage to identify items that fall into healthier nutrition categories. Aramark uses a check-mark system to identify products that are low-calorie, low-fat or low-carb, and Sodexo uses a heart symbol to denote items that fit its Your Health, Your Way program (which have fewer than 200 calories and 360 milligrams of sodium and are trans-fat-free). "It's very hard to read calorie and fat content on those packages through a machine," Peters says.
Despite the expansion of healthier options for adults, it's unlikely one will find a vending machine stocked only with healthy items. Dedicating only 20% to 30% of a machine to healthier items tends to yield a positive result, while "100% does not," McGovern says.
"There's different segments of consumers, and some still want an indulgent product, while others are looking for healthier options," Peters says.