Checking in on health
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
Healthy vending options mandatory in some provinces, but not all
By Julie Fitz-Gerald
From apple slices at fast food chains to granola bars in vending
machines, the shift to healthier food options is increasingly important
to Canadian consumers.
From apple slices at fast food chains to granola bars in vending machines, the shift to healthier food options is increasingly important to Canadian consumers. Provincial governments across the country are responding with mandatory and voluntary guidelines on food and beverage sales, particularly within the school environment. However, vending operators and schools relying on revenue from vending sales may ultimately lose out in these situations until consumers fully embrace healthier food choices.
The provincial government in British Columbia has taken one of the strongest stances in Canada as part of its provincial strategy to reduce health-care costs.
In 2008, it implemented mandatory guidelines to eliminate sugary and processed foods and beverages in all public buildings across the province, including in public schools and post-secondary institutions, hospitals and all provincially funded public buildings. British Columbia’s Ministry of Health helped develop the Nutritional Guidelines for Vending Machines in B.C. Public Buildings, to ensure that all vending machines in these spaces meet the criteria for healthy food options. Vending machines in public buildings are not permitted to offer any items from the “Not Recommended” or “Choose Least” categories outlined in the Nutritional Guidelines and at least 50 per cent of the food and beverage choices must be from the “Choose Most” category.
Similarly in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, the provincial governments also have mandatory guidelines in place that allow only “maximum” and “moderate” nutrition choices in vending machines within public schools. In Nova Scotia, this also extends to health-care institutions.
On Sept. 1, 2011, all Ontario public schools were required to ensure that food and beverages sold in all venues, including vending machines, met the nutrition standards set out in the province’s School Food and Beverage Policy. The policy requires that no less than 80 per cent of food and beverages sold in Ontario public schools is from the “Sell Most” category, representing the healthiest options, while no greater than 20 per cent of food options are from the “Sell Less” category, representing foods and beverages with slightly higher amounts of fat, sugar, and/or sodium than those in the “Sell Most” category. Products containing few or no essential nutrients, or high amounts of fat, sugar, and/or sodium, are prohibited in Ontario’s public schools.
At this time, the provincial governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have voluntary guidelines in place for public schools, where healthy options are identified and recommended, but are not yet mandatory. The Yukon has a vague mandatory policy in place that includes Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating and First Nations traditional foods. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut do not have any standards in place.
While provincial governments have the public’s best interests in mind, particularly those of Canada’s youth, mandatory policies can have a potentially disastrous effect on the schools and vending machine operators that rely on revenue from these sales. It seems that when faced with solely healthy food and beverage choices, teenagers in particular simply bypass the vending machine and head to the nearest convenience store to purchase their favourite sodium-laden snacks and sugary drinks.
Darrell Fraser, president of Definite Food Services Ltd. and Bluenose Vending Services in Nova Scotia, has seen the effects of switching to solely healthy products in some of his more than 350 vending machines. “We had two scenarios where rec centres asked us to go exclusively healthy and we saw a 60 per cent drop in sales. We can’t afford to do that everywhere and that’s a challenge. We will gladly work together to educate and promote, but making the switch totally is too difficult. You can afford to do it in one or two accounts, but not company-wide,” he explains.
Although there are vending operators in Canada who offer exclusively healthy products, many of them also offer options to lease, purchase, or license the machines, helping to boost their revenues.
While the shift to healthier food and beverage choices is inevitable and a positive change for consumers, it’s agreed that it is one that needs to happen gradually to prevent large revenue losses for both schools and vending operators. The switch also needs to be done in conjunction with educating consumers on the benefits of eating better.
Fraser is doing just this through a new program where the right columns of his vending machines will be stocked with healthy food options. It’s a program that is meant to educate the consumer and offer both traditional and non-traditional vending options. “We have to be proactive. This program we’re introducing, ‘Choose Something from the Right Side,’ we’ll be introducing to all of our accounts. We’re being proactive by making that choice available and trying to educate,” Fraser says. “You can go 75 per cent traditional and 25 per cent healthy, but at least there’s a healthy choice in there for those who want to choose it. You’re not losing all of your sales base by switching over to 100 per cent healthy products.”
Another important point is that healthier products also tend to cost more than traditional ones. Providing consumers with the ability to purchase a healthy snack or beverage option for the same price as the unhealthy alternative is something that is important to Fraser. He says that by partnering with his clients, they are finding ways to educate and make all vending choices the same financial decision for the customer. “The key is to partner with your clients and work together to get to the ultimate goal, but it can’t be overnight. You have to educate and offer alternatives, give them a choice.”
Marie Saint-Ivany, the Canadian Automatic Merchandising Association’s (CAMA) manager of member services and trade show, says that the shift to healthier food options is a good one, but it must be on a level playing field for all involved. “CAMA’s perspective is that change is inevitable and our motto is ‘Vend anything, anytime, anywhere.’ So if we have to adapt, we have to adapt. The important thing from CAMA’s perspective is that our operators are able to get the product that the people will consume, and as long as the vending industry is not targeted as the only one selling non-healthy foods, then we don’t have a problem with it. But we also like the governments to engage us so that we know what’s going on and we can participate.”
Saint-Ivany says that several provincial governments have reached out to CAMA, requesting dialogue when developing nutritional guidelines, which is a positive sign for the industry. As for a broader federal policy on nutritional guidelines, it would make things easier for vending operators, but she doesn’t see it in the cards anytime soon. “We think it’s very much a provincial thing; there doesn’t seem to be any national scope here. Our federal government is trying to get away from that by downloading the responsibility to the provinces.”
As more provinces implement mandatory guidelines for healthier food and beverage options, it will be vital for the vending industry to adapt. Finding a way to offer healthier choices at the same price point as traditional products and ensuring they don’t sit on shelves collecting dust will be the industry’s biggest challenge going forward.
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Canadian Vending magazine.