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Healthy vending snacks on the rise

Jamie Marrufo, a senior at Greeley West High School, noticed right away that the vending machine in the student commons looked a little different when she got back from winter break.

One of the new vending machines offering healthier snacks in the Weld School District 6.
One of the new vending machines offering healthier snacks in the Weld School District 6.

“I was like, ‘Where are the Snickers?’”

They were gone.

So were the rest of the candy bars as well as the fried potato and corn chips. In their place were baked chips, honey wheat pretzels, Chex Mix, beef jerky, granola bars, and pouches of trail mix, peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds. The change was part of a district-wide vending machine makeover intended to offer snacks lower in fat, sugar and calories.

Although Marrufo, who buys snacks from the machine about twice a week, loves Snickers bars, she likes the new vending machine choices too.

“It’s healthy food,” she said. “I think it’s good.”

Her friend Aimee Veenendaal, a junior who doesn’t like candy, also approved of the changes.

“I actually like it because that’s basically what I eat…the healthier stuff.”

Weld County School District 6 launched the new snack vending program in early January with the help of a $157,329 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. The grant paid for the district’s 16 food vending machines, a vending truck, the salary of a district vending employee for one year and marketing materials to promote the new program.

Jenna Schiffelbein, the district’s wellness specialist, said the impetus for the switch was feedback from a district-wide wellness assessment in 2011-12. With the exception of some nut products, the new vending snacks, which are accessible to students only at the district’s four high schools, all adhere to the district’s standards on fat and sugar content. In addition, each snack is coded with a red, yellow or green sticker indicating that, nutritionally speaking, it is “good,” “better,” or “best.”

The district has not changed the contents of its beverage vending machines as part of the new program, though Schiffelbein said that may come later. Currently, beverage machines in all Colorado districts are regulated by the state’s Healthy Beverages Policy standards, which prohibit soda from being sold to students.

Healthy vending programs increasing

Weld District 6 is part of a growing group of Colorado districts that have slimmed down their vending machine snacks in recent years. While there is no hard data on the number of districts that have launched healthy vending programs, school nutrition leaders agree that more and more districts are heading in this direction.

Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools launched healthy vending programs several years ago, Boulder Valley joined the club last year, and Adams 12 is currently in the process of making the switch.

Jane Brand, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition, said a variety of factors have driven the change, including the USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school meals, which took effect last fall, and its new, long-awaited “Smart Snacks in Schools” proposal, which came out Feb. 1.

Greater awareness about health and wellness in schools and high-profile initiatives such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign have also contributed to the push for healthier vending snacks, she said.

Naomi Steenson, director of Nutrition Services and Before and After School Enrichment in Adams 12, said, “It’s the right thing to do for the kids.”

The Jeffco experience

In Jeffco Public Schools, the largest district in the state, the vending program was revamped with healthier food in 2007-08 after a state audit found the district in violation of the federally-mandated “Competitive Foods” rule barring vending items from being sold when school meals are served. Linda Stoll, executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, said the district’s vending machines were supposed to be on timers that would disable them at the appropriate times, but because they lacked the technology the machines were always on.

As a result of the violation, the district launched a new vending bid process, specifying nutrition guidelines from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization focused on reducing childhood obesity. The guidelines use a common rule called the “35-10-35” standard, which stipulates that no more than 35 percent of a snack’s total calories can be from fat, no more than 10 percent can be from saturated and trans fat, and no more than 35 percent of a snack’s weight can be from sugar. Boulder Valley also uses these guidelines while Weld 6 uses a slightly stricter “30-10-35” standard.

In addition to a version of the 35-10-35 standard, some districts opt for additional parameters. For example, Boulder Valley also bans vending fare with non-nutritive sweeteners, hydrogenated or trans fat, artificial dyes, additives or preservatives. Jeffco prohibits high fructose corn syrup.

Not all snacks that met the letter of Jeffco’s standards were approved by Stoll. She vetoed MoonPies because she believed they were unhealthy though somehow they met the guidelines.

Stoll said she hopes the changes, which affected students in 17 high schools, have encouraged students to make healthier food choices.

“I’m sure kids miss Flamin’ Hot Cheetos but I haven’t heard a lot of complaints,” she said.

Impact on sales

While many food service directors expect some decline in sales after switching to healthier vending fare, it’s hard to quantify since individual schools often manage the day-to-day details of vending machines.

A vending machine containing healthier snacks at Greeley West High School.
A vending machine containing healthier snacks at Greeley West High School.

At Fairview High School in Boulder, sales have dropped about 44 percent since new healthier vending snacks were introduced last winter. Still, school treasurer Ronda Pendergrass said the decrease may have nothing to do with a lack of interest in healthier choices. Instead, she believes it’s because the old machines weren’t properly programmed to be disabled during the school’s lunch periods until a few months into the 2011-12 school year. Thus, they racked up more sales than they should have.

Vending proceeds at Fairview benefit the athletics program, paying for sports equipment, signing parties for college-bound student athletes and some scholarships, said Pendergrass.

In Weld District 6, Nutrition Services Director Jeremy West said with the new vending selection in place, “Sales may dip a little bit. We do not have candy bars in there. We do not have gummy worms in there.”

Ultimately, West’s goal is for the new vending program is to break even, fully supporting itself after the grant funding is gone. Under the new program, 15 percent of vending sales will return to the schools that house the machines and 85 percent will go to the nutrition services department.

Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for Boulder Valley School District (and an expert on EdNews Parent), said she’s not concerned about whether sales have dropped since the district switched to healthier vending items last winter.

“Our job is to serve kids full, healthy lunches…how much money we bring in in vending is not the priority.”

Proposed USDA rules on school snacks

The United States Department of Agriculture unveiled proposed new rules on Friday that would ban many sweet, fatty snacks and sugary beverages from school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lunch lines. The “Smart Snacks in School” proposal features nutrition standards for “competitive foods,” which are food items offered in schools outside the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. The creation of such standards was required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The proposed standards, which are based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, won’t take effect until 2014.

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