Vending machines have always been a dependable source of junk food. You feed them quarters and they dispense a sugar high or a salt fix in the form of candy bars, M & M’s, potato chips and other munchies. Then, the neighboring machines serve up sugar-dense drinks to wash it all down.
But times and policies are changing, and in communities such as Winter Park, efforts are being made to include—and label—healthy options among the traditional sugary treats.
The idea for Winter Park’s healthy vending machine and concession stand program surfaced as the city was designing its new Winter Park Community Center at 721 W. New England Ave., which opened in 2011.
A well-equipped destination for a variety of healthy activity options—ranging from basketball to working out on machines to swimming—the community center, it was decided, should also have healthy food options.
As a result, the city staff sought technical assistance from the Winter Park Health Foundation (WPHF) on establishing guidelines for healthy snacks and center policies, and then adopted a “Go, Slow, Whoa” healthy food choices program for its vending machines and the concession stand. This means the machines contain “go” foods, which are foods good to eat any time; “slow” foods, which are good to eat sometimes, but not every day; and “whoa” foods, which are the least healthy items and meant to be eaten only once in a while.
The city bought and stocks vending machines with foods in each category, and they are labeled with green (for go), yellow (for slow) and red (for whoa) stickers to help guide buyer choices. And there are wall graphics and print materials to provide additional education on how to make healthy choices.
Johnny Miller, Winter Park’s Chief of Parks & Recreation Special Events, was charged with developing the program with assistance from WPHF consultant, Sarah Stack.
He is thoughtful about placement of food items. The healthier items are placed on the middle rows of vending machines so consumers see those items first. The less healthy items are on the upper and very bottom shelves. And if one of the less healthy items runs out, he might not replace it right away, knowing if it isn’t there, the users might reach for something healthier. When he buys the less healthy food, he tries to find a reduced size version rather than providing the largest size.
There are even more healthy options at the community center’s concession stand because it can stock cold items. Items served include fresh fruit, yogurts, pizzas with whole wheat crusts and 100 percent beef hot dogs on whole wheat buns.
The idea is not to ban less healthy food items, but to provide healthy options along with guidance on how to make the healthiest choice.
Adults tend to buy the healthier items, but Miller says the program is having an impact on the children as well because they are being exposed to and are trying new choices, and they see the red, yellow and green labels again and again.
Ronnie Moore, Assistant Director of the Parks and Recreation Department, agrees the program has been successful and says the amount of product sold shows it is working. He said the volume of “whoas” continues to decrease.
And because it is successful, the program has been expanding to other departments and buildings in the city. The goal, said Mr. Moore, is to expand the program to all city snack vending machines this year.
The healthy vending machine and concession stand program is one of many steps taken by Winter Park to help the community become the healthiest possible. Michelle del Valle, Assistant City Manager, notes the city has adopted a Complete Streets resolution, has a bicycle valet program for special events and is working on establishing marked walking paths for residents and visitors.
As a result of the many efforts, Winter Park is one of 38 Florida “community champions” recognized as part of the 2014 State Surgeon General Healthy Weight Community Champion Program.