Increasing Healthy Food Options in Vending Machines

Nearly four million vending machines in schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and other places where kids spend time dispense snacks and drinks every day. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, more of those food and beverage choices will be healthy, under a new public health commitment adopted by the National Automated Merchandising Association (NAMA), with support from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (Healthier Generation) and the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), two national nonprofits dedicated to improving children’s health, including reducing obesity.

Over the next three years, the share of “better for you” options available in the nation’s vending machines will increase from 24 percent to 33 percent—a gain of nearly 40 percent over current levels. NAMA defines “better for you” as a food or beverage that meets at least two established healthy food standards.

Victoria Brown, senior program officer at RWJF, recently spoke with NAMA CEO Carla Balakgie, Healthier Generation Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer Anne Ferree, and PHA COO Stacy Molander to learn more about this unique partnership.

Victoria: I’m very excited about this initiative. It’s so encouraging to see public health and industry collaborating to make healthy foods more available. We know how important it is for kids and families, no matter where they are, to be able to make healthy choices. We also know that reformulating products to be healthier and changing practices to promote healthier foods and drinks is good for businesses’ bottom line.

I think this is a great example of how, working with public health, industry can do a lot to improve the accessibility of healthy, affordable food choices. In your view, why are collaborations between public health and industry important?

 AnneThrough our work at Healthier Generation, we understand that there’s no single solution for addressing complex public health problems. The data is clear that incremental change by major food and beverage industry leaders can produce dramatic shifts in the purchase and consumption of “better for you” products.

Stacy: Industry can—and should—be a major contributor to building a Culture of Health. The benefit of a partnership like this is that the reach is industrywide. This is a model we’ve employed elsewhere with proven success.

Carla: Working with the public health community was critical to helping NAMA make this public health commitment. Healthier Generation, PHA, and other highly respected public health groups provided insights, ideas, and recommendations that we used to strengthen the commitment throughout the two-year development process. All three of us are dedicated to making it a success for everyone—public health, industry, and consumers.  

Victoria: From a public health perspective, why focus on vending machines? 

Stacy: With nearly four million vending machines nationwide, the industry’s reach is substantial and crosses many socioeconomic levels, including lower income communities, where people are disproportionately affected by obesity and diet-related conditions.

Anne: Vending machines are inextricably woven into many families’ daily lives. Shifting the mix of products offered in vending machines not only meets consumers where they are but ensures that they are making the best choices they can for themselves and their families.

Carla: Individually, NAMA members have been making progress over the years in providing more “better for you” offerings. Acting together in a formalized fashion will accelerate this progress. We simply felt that there was more for our industry to do, given the epidemic of childhood obesity and changing consumer eating patterns. And although NAMA operators provide a range of services, this commitment focuses on vending machines for two reasons: They represent the majority of consumers we serve, and they are where we feel we can make the biggest impact on public health. 

Victoria: What did it take to create this commitment to “better for you” options and get it adopted?

Carla: It helped that we know PHA and Healthier Generation well, having worked with them since 2005 on our nutrition labeling program, FitPick.

We worked on this particular public health commitment for nearly two years. First, we studied previous models between PHA and Healthier Generation and other industries, and then we worked with our Board of Directors and industry leaders to craft a model that met our goal of offering increased “better for you” options to consumers.

We formed a nutrition working group; hired expert advisors at Convergency, Inc.; and secured a credible data aggregator and analytics company, Keybridge. Multiple meetings with the Board of Directors, as well as many discussions with operators, food and beverage manufacturers, distributors, and brokers, were held.

We created an extensive database to understand which products meet public health guidelines and to establish the percentage of “better for you” products we offer today—an essential step in determining our three-year goal. Finally, our participating companies conducted field tests across the country to learn more about how to successfully implement this commitment.  

It was an intensive effort, frankly far more so than we anticipated. Every step was crucial to building confidence in the data, the baseline, and in setting the ambitious goal we eventually decided upon. Key to our success was the ongoing collaboration with the public health community and our nearly 15-year relationship with PHA and Healthier Generation.

Stacy: Most importantly, it took leadership, and for that, we thank Carla for her vision and dedication, along with the NAMA Board for its unanimous decision to move in this direction. It’s not easy to motivate an individual company to embrace change like this, let alone an entire sector!

Victoria: At RWJF, we believe in the power of cross-sector partnerships to create opportunities for health where people live, learn, work and play. What are your organizations accomplishing together that you could not have done separately?

Carla: Partnering with Healthier Generation and PHA played a critical role in encouraging our vending machine operator companies to participate by adding significant credibility to this work. That would not have been possible by industry alone.

Anne: This collaboration demonstrates so clearly how influential organizations can leverage their respective relationships, assets, and strengths to build impact that’s broader than what a single organization could achieve.

For example, NAMA brings a massive distribution system, customer base, business innovation, marketing prowess, and highly engaged and committed leaders. Healthier Generation contributes a deep understanding of and relationships with the players across the convenience services landscape, coupled with a robust and trusted community engagement approach. And PHA has a credible and efficient validation model, plus a national event platform to spotlight commitments and communications for motivating others.

Victoria: What kinds of products changes do you anticipate consumers will see when they go to the vending machine?

 Stacy: We expect they will see an increase in the availability of “better for you” products like nuts, snacks made with whole grains, and bottled water—and, of course, fewer full calorie soft drinks and packaged foods high in sodium and added sugar.

Carla: Vending machines will carry a broader selection of “better for you” snacks and beverages. This could include favorite snacks that are reformulated and some that are brand new. 

Anne: To comply with NAMA’s definition of “better for you,” snacks and beverages must meet at least two sets of recognized public health standards. We know suppliers have a wide variety of options and Healthier Generation is looking forward to working closely with them and NAMA to fulfill that goal.

Victoria: What kind of impact do you hope to make? 

Carla: We hope to see the commitment drive improvement in public health and increase the opportunity for choice around “better for you” options in vending machines.  We want more kids and families to enjoy their snacks and beverages of choice from vending machines while diversifying the offerings with increased numbers of “better for you” selections. This is one reason we are also calling on food and beverage manufacturers to work with us to ensure that we have the right mix of products to meet ever-changing consumer demand.

Anne: We want to maximize the impact of initiatives like this one, and we hope that other food and beverage manufacturers and suppliers will join us in building the demand for healthier products. 

Stacy: It’s simple, really. That more people across the country have the opportunity to select a “better for you” product, more often. That increased pressure to stock “better for you” items will drive food and beverage manufacturers to create new products that meet the established criteria. And that we will collectively see this impact much faster and at a much larger scale by working with a sector-wide group like NAMA.

Published on November 20, 2019

Young boy holding a plant.

Stories and Expert Perspectives

Hear from experts about the impact of policies and programs in their communities, read interviews with researchers about data releases, and learn how some communities are taking action to help more children grow up healthy, including from places that have measured a decline in childhood obesity rates.

See More Stories