It has been six years since U.S. schools began removing soda from vending machines. This was a controversial move. Some observers claimed it would create financial hardships for schools but would not change kids’ eating habits.
The removal of soda and other products has certainly created financial hardships for schools. Obesity rates among young people remain high. However, this past week, the journal, Pediatrics, reports that laws that curb the sales of “junk” food and sweetened drinks at school may play a role in slowing childhood obesity.
The vending and beverage industries have largely supported these efforts. They have done so in recognition of the seriousness of the obesity problem and in the interest of being good corporate citizens. The beverage industry has voluntarily removed soda from many schools. The vending industry, led by the National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), has promoted wellness through its voluntary Fit Pick program.
Many vending operators have supported these efforts because they recognize they need to be health advocates. But from a profitability standpoint, it would be an understatement to say the wellness programs have been a challenge. At a time when the industry can least afford it, many school accounts have become less profitable.
While the wellness initiatives have been a tough pill to swallow, vending operators need to consider these efforts within the context of their long-term objectives. A key objective has been the need to change consumer perception of vending.
NAMA has invested heavily in a public awareness campaign to improve the vending industry’s image. The campaign has largely focused on promoting new vending technology. Research indicates consumers are viewing vending more favorably, particularly younger consumers. One reason is that the wellness activities are changing the traditional association of vending machines as purveyors of “junk” food.
Today’s younger generation does not see vending machines filled with soda at school. They see machines offering more water and other noncarbonated beverages. They see snack machines with more baked chips and whole grain snacks. These students are tomorrow’s consumers.
School officials are changing the way they view vending, and this, too, contributes to a new image for vending. School officials are viewing vending less as a source of income and more as a tool to promote nutrition.
The nutrition rules have resulted in a wider variety of vend products that meet standards that decision makers in all types of accounts – not just schools – are seeking.
The momentum towards healthier school vending will continue, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has indicated new nutrition rules for vending machines could be mandated under the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.
Vending operators should be leading this change in customer perception of vending, not following it. Operators who have provided “better for you offerings” in schools should highlight these programs in their marketing materials and in their sales presentations.
Change has been hard. The short term impact has been difficult. But the vending industry is making serious progress towards its long-term goal of improving its public image.