In the current economic climate, worrying about switching to higher priced items in a vending machine may seem to be a low priority for foodservice operators. It’s actually the opposite. Operators across market segments are transforming vending machines into dispensers of healthful products.
Breaking away: At 160-bed Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., Ginger MacFarlane, RD, vice president of operations and clinical nutrition services at this Unidine account, says the hospital has been doing healthy vending for about nine months. She says the hospital is very focused on wellness, and vending was one of the places they really wanted to make a change. MacFarlane says her department originally tried to make healthy changes with their existing vending company but that it didn’t work out as well as she wanted.
“We were working very closely with the hospital’s wellness committee to come up with different ways to promote healthy eating and wellness throughout the institution,” MacFarlane says. “Traditionally, we had about four vending machines that included a juice/water machine, a traditional snack machine and soda. We tried to work with our vending provider to get some healthier items such as baked chips instead of regular chips and so forth. We did that for a couple of months and it never seemed to take off. They didn’t really seem to grasp the concept. We also had a cold food machine that they were filling that we wanted to get healthier products in— soups and sandwiches versus frozen cheeseburgers. So we decided to take it upon ourselves because we weren’t successful with a vending partner.”
Greg O’Gorman, dining service director, says the vendor just had a different criteria for what healthy meant. The hospital was looking for items that were nutritionally dense and lower in fat such as Soy Crisps, bagel chips, granola, Power and Luna bars. Many of the items are also organic, he adds.
MacFarlane says the other component to the hospital’s vending program is the cold food machine, which dispenses freshly prepared products like sandwiches, salads, fresh fruit, yogurt, energy drinks, V8 juices, vegetables and hummus.
“The intent was to provide something that was a little bit healthier for our folks on the night shift because our retail is only open for the two main shifts,” MacFarlane says. “Our vending partner was happy to lease us, free of charge, their cold food machine to use because they didn’t feel it was competing with their business.”
O’Gorman says vending was a tedious aspect of the business to take over.
“Just to get the word out that the product was fresh and made daily by the same people they see in the cafeteria has taken time,” O’Gorman says. “If you’re looking to make money on it, it’s probably not going to be the biggest moneymaker for you. But if you’re looking to promote wellness and healthy eating, then its value is definitely there. Plus, it’s another option that can generate additional revenue because people will go to the cafeteria, get what they want and then go looking for a granola bar for the afternoon.”
Since the switch, MacFarlane says vending sales have gone up each month, except for a period around the six-month mark where they had to adjust the machines’ prices.
“The switch was important because Unidine and the hospital’s wellness department are very synergistic in their approach to fresh food and health,” MacFarlane says. “But initially the sales in the snack food machine were not where we wanted them to be. So we did adjust pricing because I think there was a little bit of a sticker shock. Our intent, although we don’t want to lose money, is really to promote health and wellness. So we were able to lower our prices and that drove up the sales. Over time we remarketed and we’ve seen sales go up and we’re probably looking at a 20% increase in sales compared to last year.”
Above and beyond: At 3,504-student Oak Park (Calif.) Unified Schools, Laurel Goins, director of child nutrition services, says the district’s healthy vending program grew out of a new wellness policy the district adopted three years ago.
“I’ve only been here a year and half, but I was hired to help bring in the new wellness policy because I came from Whole Foods,” Goins says. “The policy that we have adopted California’s Pupil Nutrition, Health, and Achievement Act of 2001 restrictions, which restricts sugar content and fat content, among others, and then we took it to the next step. We don’t have any artificial colors or flavors and we’re looking at eliminating antibiotics. The items have been so popular that the machines have to be refilled every evening.”
The machines, which are only at the middle high school, sell such popular healthy items as Pirate’s Booty, which is all-natural cheese popcorn, Luna bars, sweet leaf teas and Hansen’s all-natural pomegranate soda. Goins says she was drawn to her particular vending company’s healthy line because the machines have pictures of fruits and vegetables on the outside instead of advertisements.
“It’s a special vending machine and it says ‘Vend Natural’ on the outside,” Goins says. “It doesn’t have any pictures of any product on the outside, unlike the soda machine. That was also a big draw, not only what they put in it but that the outside was nice looking. The snacks that are in there are changing all the time because the person who refills them likes things like carrot chips and good stuff. We don’t have meals or sandwiches yet, but we have talked to the vending company about developing a machine that I could fill. We haven’t gotten close to that yet. ”
Student driven: At 6,200-student Ithaca College in New York, Julie Whitten, marketing manager for Sodexo at the account, says the college’s healthy vending program got started last spring as part of a class called Critical Assessment of Nutrition Programs.
“The students did a project on the then-current vending selections, looking at the nutrition contents of all the items—calories, calories from fat, fat, sugar protein and carbs,” Whitten says. “The class then created a survey for other students, faculty and staff to ask what their spending habits were with the vending machines, how often they used them and what they were purchasing and why? Then they recommended some healthier options so they kind of took us full circle.”
At the same time, Whitten says, the department changed its vending vendor to Next Generation, which then approached them with its Vitalities program.
“By actually identifying the best choices, the program had what we were looking for,” Whitten says. “We’re kind of piloting it right now. We don’t have it in every machine but pretty much in our top 10 vending locations. It seems to be working out really well.”
The machines have icons that denote items that are low in fat, low in sugar, low in caffeine, etc. Whitten says data wasn’t available on how the machines were doing versus machines that don’t have the healthy items since the machines were just installed at the beginning of the fall semester. However, Whitten says one-fifth of the student population is involved in the school center for health sciences, so she says they're very health conscious because of that and she believes that contributes to the machines’ success.
BCBS uses color coded system to spruce up vending.
As Manager of Food Service for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Richardson, Texas, Mike Hoptay has been managing his operations' switch to promoting healthier options. As part of that transition, Hoptay led an overhaul of the vending program in the hope that the changes he made could be adapted to other BCBS locations, as well as at BCBS customers' workplaces.
"The marketing and wellness department wanted to tackle vending as a primary initiative to try and get our own employees healthy. We also wanted to create a program that marketing could take and actually pass on to all of our customers so they could take it to their foodservice providers and say, ‘this is what we want to do.'
First, we had to take everything that all of our different locations in Texas sold in vending and analyze it. We took that information to our nutritionist, and she looked at all the products, and based on what the federal government uses for schools, she came up with what we consider a ‘healthy product.' Once that was established, we color coded all the different products. We categorized them, with red being the most unhealthy, yellow as in between and green as the healthiest.
We wanted to get our employees to make healthier choices so we wanted to have as many green items as possible. But we knew whatever program we developed, we had to make vendor friendly. If the vending companies couldn't find the product or if it cost too much, the vending companies weren't going to work with us.
Our goal was to eliminate all red items out of the vending machines. When we started this in October 2007, we had planned to meet that goal by mid-2009. But we [beat the timetable] and now we have eliminated all the red items. Now, 80% of the items are labeled green and 20% are labeled yellow. Of the 20% labeled yellow, there are some candy bars and chocolates, but it's items that have lower saturated fats such as Snickers. So they're not ‘as bad' for you. We've incorporated that in all of our locations throughout the state and we're looking into expanding it to locations in New Mexico and Oklahoma.
At first, we did a test with a vending machine that was centrally located and we completely converted it to green items without telling anyone. Then, we watched the two machines that were closest on either side of it to see what would happen. What we found was that the all-green machine's sales went down almost 50%, but the two machines closest went up 25%. People tended to go to one machine and if they didn't find anything, they'd go to one more machine and make a selection. So we looked for the 10 most popular yellow-labeled products and put them in the all-green machine for 30 days. Our sales actually exceeded what they had been when the red-labeled items were in there.
Again understand that green doesn't mean that it is healthy for you. It means it is the healthiest item out there in terms of what is available for a majority of vending companies. The program is at our other locations and out to a lot of our customers. We produced a CD and a booklet that our marketing people take with them when they make a call to do wellness programs with our customers. Now every new building that opens, we go in with completely green machines.
Overall, vending has gone up. We get a commission on everything we sell, and our commission has gone up about 28%."