I was in my local health food market last week, and had the chance to chat with the owner while he was ringing up my groceries. I was telling him how much I enjoy the fresh packaged sandwiches and salads his store provides, because I can take them with me to work for lunch during the week. "Not only are these items better for me," I said, "but they save me money, too."
I went on to tell him that I had since been delighted to find the same "Healthy Korner" offerings available at the new Jet Blue terminal at Kennedy Airport, and I wondered why the company doesn't supply them for vending machines. The packaging seemed perfectly appropriate for vending, so what would be the obstacle? This led to a discussion about his kid's school lunch program and the availability of healthy selections in the on-site vending machines.
The shop owner reported that he had asked the school to stock some "better-for-you" items, because he was concerned about the food his children were eating while away from home. But when the school officials checked with their vendor, they decided it would be too expensive to add that kind of product. Yes, you do pay more for nutritionally rich and varied ingredients, but we also know that an increasing number of consumers are prepared to incur this added expense. What's more, there is evidence that others are willing to pay the price but are unable, either because these items are not available to them or because the price is too high. If a deficient diet impairs your health, that will certainly cost you in the long run (and, increasingly, the rest of us too). When it comes to dietary choices, all too often, you pay now or you pay later.
Everyone knows that popular snacks are low-priced because they are formulated with ingredients that are abundant (hence inexpensive) and have desirable handling characteristics. Enjoyed in moderation, in the context of a balanced diet, they are harmless and can certainly be pleasurable. And most of us know they're not a substitute for a real breakfast, lunch or dinner.
But there is a need for caution here. I say this because the solution among public policymakers seems to be to decrease the price differential by taxing the lower-priced, out-of-favor category, so it costs consumers more to buy. (Case in point: the most recent proposal to tax sugary soft drinks). And what about offering incentives for consumers to eat better? This approach would reduce the total cost of providing the more balanced alternatives.
And I'm not just talking about calories; I'm talking about a wider and more balanced spectrum of ingredients. I think we are all sufficiently well informed by now to know that simply reducing calories does not improve nutritional value.
How about supporting programs beyond federally subsidized school lunches and breakfasts? Perhaps incentives for vending desirable items commonly lacking in kids' diets today? If youngsters are not eating in ways of which the experts approve (and they aren't; see, for example, "Snacking in Children: The Role of Urban Corner Stores" in the November, 2009, issue of Pediatrics), then vending can be part of the solution.
Our product suppliers have certainly done their part to make more nutritionally balanced items available to locations. Today's vending technology offers many options for creative promotion of more sensible dietary choices, from Kraft's "Digitouch" touchscreen multiproduct machine that can offer a fun way to educate young consumers by displaying attention-getting information, to the versatile food vending system from VE South that accommodates full-price, reduced-price and free meals complying with USDA school lunch requirements.
I certainly did not suffer from a lack of healthy treats at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's recent trade show last month. I snacked on everything from apple slices to pistachio nuts. If this is true, then why can't my friendly grocer expect these same snack items to be available to his children when they're away from home?
What's needed is education and creativity, in that order. People not involved with our business don't understand the influence the vending industry can exert through communications and marketing. And we're the only ones who can tell them. If President Obama really wants to help the "entrepreneurial pioneers who embody the tireless work ethic," and if the first lady truly "lauds stimulus for healthier vending," then surely the government will recognize our industry, right?
It could happen, if we want it to. However, we need to keep our guard up against efforts to divert worthwhile initiatives into "revenue enhancement"; we must make sure we are not the next target. I am hopeful that this remains a representative democracy, and we can make our voices heard. We have the power and the technology to blitz the market with good food choices and a positive, compelling message – to be the leaders in this transformation, not the victims.