The National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2003 National Expo offered a wealth of information on the factors contributing to the much-discussed increase in obesity that has been garnering headlines over the past several years.
Highlights of the program included warnings about the contemporary decline in physical activity, especially among today's children. The first was delivered by National Football League Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, who made the wry suggestion that the nation should put up roadside signs that read Caution! Children Not At Play!
The second was voiced by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the pioneer proponent of aerobic exercise, who pointed out that the increasingly sedentary nature of today's occupations and recreations tends more and more to reduce the opportunities for the moderate amount of exercise needed every day. While "sensible snacking" choices certainly are important, he said, adopting a more active lifestyle is essential not only to combatting obesity, but to maintaining overall health.
On the dietary side, NAMA Nutrition Knowledge Source consultant Ruth Lahmayer emphasized the importance of moderation and balance in food and snack consumption, and of regular physical activity as the other term of the metabolic equation.
These timely presentations, and the position-paper issued by NAMA's Board of Directors that endorses the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition's call for better nutrition education and enhanced physical education (see VT, Aug.), reinforce a message that the association has been conveying since the "junk food" allegations of the early 1970s. And the industry has responded.
Almost simultaneously with the National Expo, an outfit called "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals" assailed milk vending in schools, starting in Florida. We have not figured out what they find unethical about drinking milk, which has been widespread for the past 10,000 years or so, and which certainly has resulted in real benefits from both the human and the bovine perspectives. Nonetheless, PETA appears to have changed its focus from the fur trade and fast food restaurants to the dairy industry. Their tactical argument, in their school offensive, is that milk contains fat, and flavored milks contain sugar. Their strategic argument is that dairies, somehow, are responsible for cruelty to animals (even though everyone used to know that "abused animals don't give milk," as a dairy spokesman observed).
As with earlier "activist" assaults, this one is not primarily directed at vending, but vendors are suffering from it. And we don't think any of this will go away soon.
Part of the difficulty in countering these onslaughts is that the assailants are immune from reason. Worse, they have nothing else to do but plan surprise guerrilla theater events to attract media attention, while their targets have to deal with the daily details of serving their customers and paying the bills. Every trade association representing those targets has well-thought-out mechanisms in place to field criticism and respond intelligently to it. But position papers presenting facts in a methodical manner are not always well suited to an age of 15-second video clips and sound bites. They do not provide the immediate sensory stimulation of a bunch of people wearing chicken suits and doing something outrageous.
Swift and effective counteraction might be sought on two levels. We think there's need for greater exchange of information among industries, perhaps by means of a centralized Internet database that could provide immediate direction to purveyors of food and beverages, such as vending operators, in locating the facts they need to deal with a local situation.
Perhaps more important is the need for operators to establish a positive identity in the community, to become known as an approachable and credible authority. It always is easier to uphold a complex position (such as the interrelationship between diet and exercise) if one has laid the groundwork in advance.For example, a suggestion made by keynoter Swann was that operators place POS signs on their school vending machines, asking "Have you had your 30 minutes of exercise today?" We think this entirely practical and would be well worth doing. This sort of thing, in conjunction with NAMA's excellent materials on maintaining good public and media relations, can go a long way to defanging the activists.