Healthy Vending

December 01, 2014

From the latest issue of Food, Nutrition & Science.

We’ve all been there. Post lunch, pre dinner. Hungry, needing a snack, and wanting desperately to grab the candy bar stashed in the bottom desk drawer or in the vending machine down the hall but trying hard to stay the course, eat healthy and make nutritious choices. Making these healthy choices, however, is easier when we have quick access to delicious, fresh, healthy foods. And that’s where healthy vending comes in, both at work – and in schools.

The new Smart Snacks in School rules – a result of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – went into effect at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, bringing the challenge of providing healthy vending in schools to the forefront. Now that all foods and beverages sold outside of the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs must meet specific standards – there are limits on calories, fat, sodium and sugars, while encouraging more whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein foods – snacks and beverages sold in vending machines, a la carte lines and other venues throughout the school building will be better choices for students overall. 

“Research supports that students that are well nourished and have regular physical activity are better learners in the classroom. Making sure that students have foods and beverages available to them that support healthy eating during the school day is essential to supporting their academic performance. We also know that youth are busy and often don’t have time to sit and eat an entire meal or snack in between extracurricular activities, athletics and socializing. Making healthy choices accessible in grab and go formats such as through healthy vending is important so that students have time to eat that nutritious snack whether it be directly after they purchase it or later in the day,” says Stephanie Joyce, National Nutrition Advisor, Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

One company making strides in this arena is HUMAN (“Helping Unite Mankind And Nutrition”) Healthy Vending, a nutritional distribution platform that uses healthy vending machines to bring people convenient, healthier, and better-for-you foods and drinks.

With more than 1,500 machines placed across the country, HUMAN has gone to great lengths to fill school vending machines with foods that meet the new USDA requirements, stocking up with items like fresh fruits and veggies, Pirate’s Booty, PopChips, Clif Bars, and more. Fresh! Healthy Vending, another school vending franchise, is doing the same. Joyce says that the healthy school-home connections made through this type of service is invaluable.

“We feel like schools are an ideal place to jumpstart this message and realize it must be reinforced at home and in the community. In schools and communities across the U.S., youth are being taught that good nutrition and eating healthy is important whether they are at school, home or on the go. Creating healthier environments where we all learn, work and play will reinforce this message to youth and demonstrate that healthy choices can be tasty and accessible,” says Joyce.  

Also, the importance of packaging and messaging cannot be underplayed, especially when it comes to youth, says Joyce. Research from Cornell University on behavioral economics demonstrates that people are more likely to select the healthy choice when it is packaged and positioned in a way that is appealing and in prominent position to the eye that prompts them to make that selection.  

“We eat with our eyes! Health foods need to be accessible, appealing and taste good! Packaging healthy and fresh foods in a fun and convenient way is critical to getting youth to accept these healthier choices,” says Joyce. 

Joyce says that even before the new standards were put in place, they were already seeing some healthier vending machines promoted in school districts. And she says there is a tremendous opportunity to grow this trend nationwide. 

Indeed, healthy vending is expanding outside of the school marketplace, too. Luke Saunders is the Founder of Farmer's Fridge, a healthy vending machine business that distributes fresh, local food daily to locations across Chicago. Saunders that said the inspiration for his business came from traveling a lot for work, and simply not finding healthy food options that he wanted to eat while on the go. Saunders realized that he could solve the problem of not finding healthy grab-and-go options by distributing good food in a kiosk, and being able to get into spaces you couldn’t get into with traditional retail.

“What makes us really unique is that every day we're getting fresh produce, in our kitchen. When I was doing research for this, and thinking about it as a consumer, the number one obstacle people have when buying food out of a vending machine is that they don't know how long its been there. So right away we made sure that our value propositions were there, and that we would make the food fresh everyday,” says Saunders.

Saunders says that healthy vending is an accessible option for organic local produce, especially at their price point and because of their operating structure. But he does know that they could struggle at first with consumer perceptions that they are paying a premium for organic or local vegetables. Still, Saunders says he thinks the movement will catch on, and that once consumers realize that this is not only a healthy but also an affordable snacking choice, they will jump right in and embrace the concept.

“Our goal is to be a national company and have really healthy, accessible food available to as many people as possible. Farmer's Fridge is really a fresh take on fresh, good for you, good to go food and we're really changing the way people think about fresh, healthy food,” says Saunders. 

Joyce agrees. She adds, “I think we will continue to see more products available that meet or exceed the Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards, as well as more fresh fruits and vegetables packaged in a convenient grab and go format. I also think we will see our youth not only accepting these healthier choices, but expecting to see healthier food and beverage choices made available to them at school, home and in their communities.”