Who can't use a snack break sometime during the work day? Times were, that meant heading for the vending machine and grabbing a soda and a bag of chips or a candy bar. But times change and in more and more workplaces, so have the contents of the vending machines as employers, healthcare organizations, government agencies, trade associations and vending machine merchandisers join together to create a healthier workforce.
There are 141 million full– and part-time workers in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 63 percent of the American adult population is overweight or obese, which can lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. From establishing workplace wellness programs to offering healthier food and beverage options, employers are looking for ways to help reduce the health risks and improve the quality of life of their employees, which in turn will improve their own economic health, from reducing healthcare costs and sick time taken to increasing productivity.
So, do you really need those chips, or would a handful of almonds do the trick? For Becky Palazzola, co-owner with her husband Joe of the California-based automatic merchandising company, A Matter of Taste, "going nuts" is almost always the better choice. The Palazzolas' company provides healthy, fresh food products to cafeterias and vending machines in hospitals, manufacturing plants, government agencies, retail establishments, schools, and—being in California—the entertainment industry.
Following guidelines established by the National Automatic Merchandising Association's Balanced for Life program, the Palazzolas stock their vending machines with healthy choices such as fresh salads, pasta, fruit, yogurt, cottage cheese and sandwiches made with whole grain bread. Sugary sodas have been replaced by diet sodas, juices and bottled waters; baked chips and corn puffs have been substituted for traditional fried chips; and candy choices have been cut back—though not totally eliminated ("Sometimes you just need some chocolate!" says Palazzola).
Other vending machine companies are also making healthy snacking more available in the workplace. Human Healthy Vending, for example, also based in California but with clients nationwide, fills its state-of-the-art machines (which not only accept credit cards, but also include LCD screens that can display nutritional information) strictly with no-salt, no-cholesterol items, waters (plain and vitamin), and to satisfy the sweet tooth, fruit-sweetened cookies.
With healthier vending options available to them, more and more employers are jumping on the bandwagon, believing that it is their responsibility to demonstrate to their employees just what healthy eating is. "We don't force them . . . we just guide them," says Patricia Forrester, RD, MBH, Director of Nutrition and Food Services at Mary Medical Center San Pedro. "As a healthcare institution, it speaks well for us to give our employees healthier options."
Changing vending selections is a decision that has to come "from the top," says Miriam Pappo, MS, RD, CDN, Director of the Department of Clinical Nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Though employers in New York are not required to offer healthier vending choices, those who are interested in doing so can look for guidance from the New York City Department of Health's Food Vending Machine Guidelines.
While the reduction or elimination of high-fat, high-sugar snack choices is the long-term objective, portion control is just as important. "If you monitor the calories, you're probably limiting the fat and sugar as well," says Pappo, adding that—to the relief of snack lovers everywhere—candy can be part of a healthy diet, as long as it's a "treat a day, not a treat every meal."