Is that a banana in your vending machine?

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The Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee is discussing healthy vending options tomorrow; today The Seattle Times huffed a bit and ran a front page article concluding “Good luck with that.”

I think there IS hope for all of us snackers. Our Department of Parks and Recreation showed that we can take little healthy steps and make smart food choices.  Parks decided to implement King County Healthy Vending Guidelines of “Healthier” and “Healthiest” choices in all vending machines in City park facilities and guess what – when there were alternatives to Cheezie Puffs, people often choose wisely.

Why mess around with vending machines at all?

In 2007, Public Health – Seattle & King County got a grant from Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reduce risk factors that result in poor health. Obesity and poor nutrition are serious problems in King County. Approximately half the adult population in Seattle is overweight or obese. The direct medical cost of obesity in adults is estimated at about $500 million in King County each year, not including lost work days and lost productivity, and one in five youth are overweight or obese, setting them up to remain so in adulthood.

Overweight adults are at greater risk for numerous serious health outcomes that place a large burden on the health care system and increase health care costs, including type two diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, certain cancers, asthma, arthritis and other debilitating diseases.

DPR’s gradual implementation approach

In 2008, DPR partnered with Public Health – Seattle & King County to plan and implement the Healthy Parks Healthy You (HPHY) Initiative recommendations. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week, combined with a healthier diet, can be enough to make a difference in fighting obesity.

Parks worked with Public Health to establish standards and guidelines for foods in vending machines (Seattle Parks and Recreation Healthy Vending Guidelines (PDF).

In short, the guidelines did the following:

  • Excluded candy, cookies, regular chips, trail mix, fruit in heavy syrup, popcorn, pork rinds, regular/diet soft drink, sports drinks.
  • Rated as “Healthier:” Foods with up to 5 grams of fat and 30 grams of carbs per serving – must meet both criteria. Includes granola bars, baked chips, rice cakes, dried fruit snacks, pretzels, light popcorn, nonfat or 1% milk.
  • Rated as Healthiest: Foods with up to 3 grams of fat and 30 grams of carbs per serving – must meet both criteria. Nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, dried fruit, fat-free popcorn, 95% fat free beef jerky, low or nonfat yogurt, nonfat or 1% milk, 100% juice, water.

Then, Parks began the transition to healthy options in vending machines, with 40% healthier offerings at a few community centers in 2009. In 2010: they worked up to 67% and got to 100% by end of 2010. Now: Parks provides healthy foods in teen programs, senior programs, and staff functions. PCC co-sponsors HPHY.

Financial impact

Parks gets roughly $35,000 annually from about 80 machines in the vending contract. During a six-month period between 2009 and 2010, when they were transitioning from 40% compliance to 67%, revenue dipped by about $3,000 with the healthier options.

Fortunately, that revenue returned later in 2010, and in October 2011, I was glad to sponsor Council Bill Number: 117325, granting a 5-year contract to the healthy foods vendor Compass Group USA for DPR machines. The measure passed full and was signed by the Mayor December 7, 2011.

We learned that a gradual approach, plus choosing things that taste good, seemed to work to get people accustomed to the new offerings.

Now Council is considering legislation to increase the amount of healthy options in vending machines operated on City property. Council Bill 117710 requires all vending machines operated on City Property to stock “Healthier” and “Healthiest” food and beverage selections as defined by Public Health Seattle & King County “King County Healthy Vending Guidelines.”

The bill requires that any concessionaire operating a food and/or beverage vending machine on City property stock at least 50 percent of the items in each machine with food and beverages items that meet the “Healthiest” or “Healthier” product selection criteria, and that items be clearly labeled. (It exempts the DPR vending machines that are already at 100% healthiest or healthier.)

In June of 2014 City Personnel Department and Public Health–Seattle & King County will review implementation, compliance and impact of this ordinance one year from the effective date, which will be 30 days after its approval by the Mayor. In the six months after the ordinance takes effect, the city will educate employees about the benefits of healthy eating.

So, when you hit the wall at 2:00 pm, like so many of us, rather than paying quarters for peanut-covered M&Ms, you’ll be able to get protein-packed almonds instead, sans chocolate!