Healthier Vending

The health of the nation has been under scrutiny from all directions since the Government’s Health Committee Report on Obesity in 2004. The response from the Department of Health was the Choosing Health – Making healthy choices easier report. However obesity is a complex social issue and one that requires concerted actions even though responsibility remains with each of us to make our own choices. It is this choice that the Choosing Health document uses as its main plank. It states: “The choices people make as consumers – what we eat and drink, and how we use services and facilities – impact on health.”  And to assist this, both consumer demand and market provision require influencing.

To understand the importance of healthy eating in hospitals, we must first look to the progress made in our schools. Ideally the situation in schools should have provided a positive template to expand upon but while Jamie Oliver may have pressured the government to move faster into a programme of improving school meals it is clear that such a rapid implementation is producing a marked decrease in the uptake of school meals.

The initial £220 million granted by the Government for three years plus a further £240 million for another three years is insufficient to carry the programme without a price increase for each meal. Traditionally the price of school meals is elastic – marketing jargon for, if you put the price up less people will buy – because there is a range of cheaper, ‘acceptable’ alternatives from the lunchbox to the local chippy. To pay for the new nutritional guidelines the cost of school meals has risen already from £1.50 to £1.70/£1.80 and looks likely to rise further, with expected consequences. Can this really be the answer to reducing obesity and what has this got to do with vending?

Delivery channel
Initially vending machines were targeted for banning from schools as the perception was that everything they contained was unhealthy. The fact of the matter is that vending machines are simply a delivery channel through which suitably packaged products may be sold 24-hours if required, cost-effectively.

Sensibly vending machines were not banned and attention was drawn to what products might be put in them. The ensuing discussion on what products might be called healthy drew no real conclusion as no-one could or would define what ‘healthy’ actually meant when applied to food and drink.  Clearly it has to be applied to individual lifestyle: would you recommend the same diet to an accountant as you would to an athlete?

The expectation was that specific standards would be applied to the types of products available to school students from vending machines, in this way creating a new range of choices. Overall choice would be retained by the school, parents, governors and students with students being educated further on how to make better choices for themselves.

Desirable contraband
Instead the School Food Trust, in the light of dwindling uptake of school meals, banned virtually all snack products except seeds, nuts (unsweetened, unsalted), fruit and vegetables. The demonisation of the banned products has the effect of making them more desirable. Most schools also have a ‘no nuts’ policy, leaving snack machines potentially full of fruit, seeds and vegetables which, apparent from the lunch fiasco, would not be viable. It would also leave those with food intolerances vulnerable to unrecognised products rather than their familiar brands.

The contradictions continue with food machines because they can only stock products fresh from the school kitchen.  While laudably providing wraps, sandwiches and salads these can still suffer from the negative perceptions of the students.  Additionally fresh food in a machine has a short shelf life, requires packaging and blast chilling to bring to storage temperature and needs demand to minimise wastage.

Drinks fare better with water, milk based drinks and fruit juices (with less than 5 per cent added sugar) as alternatives to high sugar carbonated drinks. Sports drinks and flavoured waters are also banned. Sadly the biggest visible change where these guidelines have been implemented for vending is that school students now bring in the products they want either from home or buy them on the way to and from school and those with an entrepreneurial bent set up contraband operations.

Around the clock provision
Hospitals are at the leading edge of the health of the nation. The population’s choices in lifestyle, activity and eating and drinking will always have an impact on the delivery of healthcare. Hospitals provide catering services to staff, patients and visitors and vending is part of that provision – especially given that they must operate around the clock every day of the year.  Hospitals have already embarked on improving hospital food for patients, providing round the clock food for junior doctors and doubtless will be or have already considered all the other provisions for catering for staff and visitors. Given the vending in schools scenario the need for choice is essential. 

Vending can provide wholesome, fresh nutritious meals for microwaving for daytime or late night. When blood-sugar levels are dropping it can provide a boost either from a drink or confectionery. It can provide a warming cup of coffee or tea in A&E or something to fill the gap because dinner is going to be later than anticipated. What actually is provided must reflect the needs of this audience who can be male or female, nine or 90, athlete or accountant.

It is a tall order to provide across the board for all the hospital population but choice remains at the heart. Vending machines have limitations on capacity but can be used in a variety of ways to address the needs of the particular site they serve. It would be a serious failure to follow the example of schools and dictate to unwilling consumers. Hospitals understand health and their role must be to influence our lifestyles with information on the consequences of our choices while respecting that with variety and moderation we can still enjoy a broad range of products and not be bound by contrived limits.

While the obesity issue is a complex one, vending is comparatively simple and assistance is at hand. The Automatic Vending Association (AVA), established as long ago as 1929, provides a wealth of information on vending, including the ‘Explaining Vending’ brochure, which simplifies the purchasing process. While available printed free from AVA (020 8661 1112) it can also be found on the AVA website along with a list of AVA members and their contact details and a variety of essential information on vending and the industry. AVA members can only display the AVA logo if they comply with the AVA quality scheme, audited annually – and face expulsion for non-compliance.

For a face to face experience with the vending industry put a date in your diary for 24-26 April 2007 when AVEX 2007 featuring the Cooler Show takes place at Earls Court 2 in London. AVEX is the premier international business to business exhibition dedicated to automatic vending and appears in the aeo Top 100 UK exhibitions. For the first time it features the Cooler Show dedicated to the water cooler industry creating a ‘must visit’ event.

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