Get healthy choices into your vending machines

Imagine a diabetic worker leaving a "lunch and learn" on how to control her blood sugar who feels hunger pangs. As he or she walks past the vending machine, is that worker faced with a choice between a candy bar and a sugary pastry?

"Ultimately, the goal would be to create a healthy food environment through partnerships with food service vendors," says Mary Jane Rink, RN, FNP-C, CWWC, assistant vice president of the LiveWELL Carolinas! program at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte. These include cafeteria vendors, vending machine vendors and the various sales representatives that bring in food for employees.

"Our approach has been a stepwise one. We have started with the vendor for our cafeterias, and are now working with the vending machine contractor to offer healthy food," says Rink. Here are three approaches:

1. Get some competition going.

At Carolinas HealthCare System, several of the company's departments instituted healthy snack baskets. Employees use the honor system to pay 25 or 50 cents for fruit or healthy granola bars.

"The vending machine company saw a sharp decrease in sales and began adding healthier options to the vending machines," says Rink. "Now, we have a companywide vending contract 'war' to see which company can really deliver healthy items!"

2. Flag healthy choices.

Rausch says that as the company doesn't have a cafeteria onsite, hourly workers bring in their meals. However, there are healthy choices offered in vending machines onsite.

"We 'push' healthy choices by having the healthy snacks marked with a heart sticker," says Rausch. "Also, the healthier foods are placed at eye level. You have to look to the bottom to find the Snickers bar. Water, green and iced tea are at the top, and Coke is at the bottom."

Rausch says that another way to encourage healthy choices is to "subsidize" these by making them a little cheaper, while increasing the price of less healthy choices.

3. Work directly with vendors.

At Alexandria, LA-based RoyOMartin, occupational health nurses worked closely with leadership and purchasing staff, to encourage the company's snack and food vendor to put healthier snacks in break rooms. However, "this was only moderately successful," says Collene Van Mol, BSN, RN, COHN-S/CM, the company's occupational health manager.

Now the company is dealing with a different vendor who provides fresh salads, healthy sandwiches, and a machine filled with healthy snacks. "Machines with a fresh new look, new foods focused on health and a simple marketing plan for employee buy-in has doubled the purchase of healthy choices," says Von Mol. "We worked with the vendor to remove high fat and high sugar snack and meal choices, as well as energy drinks. We found these were causing blood sugar and blood pressure problems among our employees working in the heat."