by Marion Nestle
Jun 11 2008

Healthy vending machines an oxymoron?

Alexandra Lewin did an extra-curricular project during her doctoral studies in nutrition at Cornell. She tried to get healthier products placed in the department’s junk-food filled vending machines. No doubt you think it would be easy to do something like this, especially in a nutrition department. Wrong. I was an occasional advisor on this project.  All I could do was laugh at what happened and cheer her on.  If you want to understand what it means when public health people like me refer to “deeply entrenched institutional barriers to dietary change,” take a look at her post on Corporations and Health Watch.

  • Sheila

    Wow, I would not have guessed this would have been such a complex issue, or so controversial within the department of nutrition or the university food service. If the whole department or dining service is not fully on board with this change, no wonder the rest of the world refuses to change. I laughed at the obvious chafing by some member of the nutrition department who clearly articulated preference for junk food and rejected the concept of vending only healthy food. It is also interesting how some foods I would consider highly processed were presented to the committee as “healthy” choices. And the vocal chocolate fans were a riot! So, we now also know that even in a nutrition department, chocolate trumps other preferences.
    I think one of the more interesting questions posed is whether members of the department have a responsibility to be healthy or to eat healthy choices. I think this is a question of ethics all of us in health related fields ought to consider. How or why can we present ourselves as “experts” professing some body of information is standard of care, yet we conduct our own choices or care by very different standards? I have asked this question in the hiring of nurses in our own clinic and in the food we serve to the public at events. We have hired several nurses in the last year, all of them obese. What?!! What gives with hiring nurses who clearly don’t manage their own health choices, but I am supposed to let them instruct my patients on healthy choices? I do think we have an obligation to be role models. I am very conscious of what is in my cart at the grocery store, as you might be surprised how many people see this. In fact, I have frequently heard the comment “You really do eat that stuff you tell us to eat.” People seem encouraged to see this, seem to suddenly believe it might be the truth that this food is good for you. And I cringed when our clinic served hot dogs, chips, and soda to the public at an event held to bring people to get their blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol checked.
    Yes, this is an excellent project. I hope this student continues to advocate for healthy change across the campus. I think the concept of higher education includes examining how we apply what we know to be true, even as far as our dietary choices and vending contracts.

  • Sheila

    And speaking of vending contracts…who is the customer here, and what happened to the concept of giving the customer what he/she wants? Why does the vending company have ultimate power to determine choice availability? Would be good opportunity for the business students to work on telling the vending company they will have to meet new expectations or the vending contract will be awarded to another vendor at the end of the current contract. Then have those business students work with the nutrition students to hammer out a new vending contract that clearly specifies expectations for healthy choices and the new role for the customer (University) to have the choice of selections.

  • Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for your really insightful comments. I would love to get more feedback from health professionals on some of the distinctions between what is preached vs. what is practiced.

    The vending machine project was eye-opening – lots of unexpected barriers just to change around a few bags of chips. Perhaps one of the largest barriers was the department’s commitment to this change – it would have helped a lot to know that we would have had support in implementing a new contract and/or ending the contract if the foods we desired weren’t made available.

    I’ve since moved from Ithaca, however, and the vending company continues to express interest in implementing healthier options throughout the rest of campus. Perhaps it is a PR move for the campus and in the company’s best financial interest to figure out which healthier options sell well but it’s difficult to disentangle different motivations and goals. Without a doubt, however, the company has a financial bottom line and they will stock what sells.

    One other comment – the users of the vending machine seem to be biased towards those who might desire some unhealthy options during the day. I received many emails from folks who said they brought food with them, or went to a deli, because traditional vending food is unhealthy. If companies want non-traditional consumers to purchase from vending machines, I believe we need deeper systemic change to make real healthy options both available and accessible.

    But nevertheless the traditional snack foods sold, and sold well, in the nutrition department. It will be up to us as individuals, and I guess as a department, to figure out the lessons we want to teach with respect to creating a healthier food environment.

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  • atlanta vending machines

    The article is down but schools and companies concerned about the health of there staff CAN HAVE HEALTHY products in their vendors unless they have the wrong vending company.

    Vending has come a long way in both vending technology and the products available.

    We at Atlanta Vending Machines, Elite believe in feeding our children well, teaching team proper choices and giving them those choices to choose from.