The Issue With Going 100% Healthy In Vending

May 3, 2018

In today's daily newsletter, you will find that another city has required healthy items in vending machines. In this case, it's not just a percentage of the vending products required to be healthy, but 100 percent of them. The Balitmore County health officer was quoted in the article as saying that even though people will go to vending machines looking for something unhealthy, by not giving them the option, they pick something very, very healthy. 

I think there are some flaws in that argument. The first is how to quantify "very, very healthy." I don't know if I would call baked chips or granola bars (both of which were mentioned as the allowed vending machine products) VERY, VERY healthy. Healthier, yes. Better for you than some of the alternatives -- definitely. However, very, very healthy, makes me think of fresh vegetables and lean proteins – neither of which work well in a vending machine.  

Vending is a business 

The bigger issue however, is that vending is a business. There are jobs behind those black boxes. The products inside are there because there is a need for quick refreshment and someone willing to fulfill that need in exchange for monetary compensation that ultimate supports their family. The system breaks down when there are no sales from a vending machine. And if the products people want are not at the vending machine, they simply go elsewhere to purchase them. Now, I don't know the layout of the Baltimore area, so perhaps there are no options within walking distance of these 50 vending machines in county buildings. Perhaps there is no public transit or cars or other way for people looking for a snack or drink to get to a convenience store, super market, drug store or other retail establishment that is not held to a 100 percent healthy product restriction.  

This ultimately leads me to my question about why vending is targeted, versus these other retail outlets. I buy most of my food from a grocery store, so if someone truly wanted to change my diet, restricting what I could buy at the grocery store would have the biggest impact on my health. Let's not forget restricting fast food and quick serve restaurants as well since according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spend almost as much eating away from home, as they do at the grocery store.   

Healthy is already important 

I understand that getting the U.S. healthier is an important objective. The vending industry has never disagreed with that idea. From our own annual research, the majority of vending operators are looking for healthier items each year to include in their product selections. Every person I asked at the recent NAMA Show, a large vending, micro market and office coffee service trade show, was interested in finding healthier options to put in their vending machines and micro markets. However, because it's a business, issues such as product cost, shelf-life and taste also came into play. It's not just a simple matter of putting a washed, but perfectly plain carrot in the vending machine. No one will buy that, and then there will be no vending machine because there is no money supporting the service. It is the balance all businesses must achieve.  

In the end, I don't see how restricting vending products so severely will have a great impact on overall obesity rates. A good variety of options to choose from, including the occasional candy item, is ideal in my opinion. It gives everyone something that may fit into their needs, while acknowledging that there is limited shelf space inside a vending machine, so not every diet and every preference can be represented. It also acknowledges that most people don't get the majority of their calories from a vending machine. It's just not the place for such drastic action, especially as operators are using programs such as FitPick and The Right Choice For A Healthier You to bring nutritious choices to people across the country already. Going all in is going too far.