The healthy option
CAMA initiative gives vending operators the tools to integrate a healthy choices program into their businesses
By Maria Church
Angie Hargraves has a personal connection to the shift towards healthy food choices in vending merchandisers. The industry veteran, who has worked for Toronto-based Vending Products of Canada for 16 years, was severely obese just two years ago.
“I was diagnosed with a disease called obesity hypoventilation syndrome, which meant my body wasn’t releasing carbon dioxide as I breathed. The carbon dioxide was damaging my main organs, and I was told within five years my organs would go into complete failure if I didn’t make changes immediately,” Hargraves explained.
After surgery and lifestyle changes, Hargraves lost almost 200 pounds and has completely turned her diagnoses around. “I’ve joined a gym; I work out three to four times a week; I watch what I eat; I’m on the healthy kick,” she said.
Hargraves is a member of the committee behind the Canadian Automatic Merchandising Association’s (CAMA) healthy vending program that launches this fall at the association’s annual conference and trade show in Victoria. The initiative is designed to give vending, micro market and office coffee service operators and suppliers the tools to conveniently implement a healthy options program in their businesses.
“Sitting on this board means a lot to me,” Hargraves said. “We can possibly encourage people to change their eating habits to benefit their life expectancies. The program is near and dear to me.”
Dan Stewart is the program committee chair, and president of Savco Food Services Ltd. based in Point-Edward, Ont. The idea of promoting healthy products in vending machines is not new to the industry, he said, but it has become more important over the last several years.
“The economy changed, the marketplace changed and consumer trends changed to a greater degree,” Stewart said. “We need to be an industry that is progressive and keeps up with the times.”
Keeping up with the times doesn’t mean swapping all food and beverage products with sugar-free, non-fat alternatives. After all, vending operators still need to turn a profit and progressive change is a slow, gradual process.
“In order for us to be relevant to our client’s needs, operators must continue to offer traditional products while continuing to develop the healthier product offerings,” Stewart said.
Ontario dietitian April Saunders was commissioned to design and develop CAMA’s healthy choices program, including implementation and evaluation, and said the convenience of vending operators was top of mind.
“Our goal is to provide a program that makes it easy for vending operators to get into the healthier choices space,” Saunders said. In her development of the program, Saunders conducted survey with vending, micro market and office coffee service operators from across Canada to learn what companies are already doing to promote healthier choices, and how their processes can be standardized.
“Operators know that the consumer is looking for healthier items – there is no doubt that there is increased consumer awareness about that,” Saunders said. “It was helpful for me to learn about some successes and challenges that operators have run into – and how the program can help mitigate them.”
Key to CAMA’s program is standardized nutrition criteria for what constitutes a credible healthy product. Through Saunders’ research and with input from CAMA’s committee, it was decided that program would feature set nutrition standards based on fixed criteria.
“A lot of programs base their nutrition criteria on a percentage of calories, so for example, no product can have more than 30 or 35 per cent calories from fat. But, what an operator would have to do to see a product meets the guidelines is to get out a calculator . . . it’s a lot of work,” Saunders said.
CAMA’s program, by comparison, has set amounts of allowed fat and calories so that operators can quickly and easily identify what products meet the criteria.
The program will also require that a minimum percentage of selections be product meeting the program’s nutritional standards.
Hargraves stressed that the program is not going to force healthy foods on unwilling snackers; it’s simply going to give people a choice. “Hopefully when we offer healthier choices and people see different products in a vending machine that they never would have thought were an option for them, that will intrigue them.
“If they’re eating the healthier choice at work, they will also possibly at home and in their personal life,” she said.
Stewart notes that some operators have concerns that offering healthier choices displaces high volume traditional products with low volume healthier products, resulting in lower revenues. “It’s not just about persuading somebody wanting a chocolate bar to purchase a granola bar instead. We should also be attracting that customer who would never buy a chocolate bar in the first place and doesn’t expect to find a healthier choice in a vending merchandiser or micro market,” he said. “This customer represents an incremental sale but we will have to work long and hard to overcome the perception that we do not offer healthier choices.”
Consumers in North America are surrounded by unhealthy food environments, Saunders said, meaning they have easy, cheap access to junk foods. As well, meals are often replaced by snacking. “We’re busier, we don’t cook at home as much as we used to, we’re out more often,” she said.
As a dietitian, Saunders said she views the program as a win for public health. “Any small change in the offering is going to have a positive impact over the long run. But these things take time. If the product isn’t there, they can’t make the choice.”
A large part of a healthy choice program’s draw is the visual appeal of eating well. CAMA’s program will include branding and promotional material that aims to give customers’ confidence that the machine is trustworthy and appealing.
Stewart’s company has offered healthy products for several years, initially by including several options in each machine. In the beginning, Stewart said, the program did not achieve the success he envisioned because it was not branded or marketed to clients and customers.
“The key was to brand the program and the merchandisers, set a minimum number of selections per merchandiser and specify the placement of the product. This required a buy-in from our route representatives,” he said. “All this adds to the customer’s confidence that the merchandiser is appealing and dependable; just as does equipment cleanliness and modern technology such as LED lighting and cashless payment systems.”
When it comes to client – both existing and potential – the healthy vending program is just another tool in the box for operators to secure accounts.
“Presenting a healthy choices program to an existing client sends a very positive message, and reinforces your relationship with them.” Stewart said. “And in turn it allows them to present a new and progressive program to their employees or customers. It is a win-win.”
More and more operators are using healthier choice programs as an opportunity to attract new clients, he said. Some of those companies represent themselves as providers of healthy vending services and products, but have no established nutritional standards.
“This is just one more reason for operators to have in place a branded program with credible nutritional criteria and standards which are supported by professional POS and promotional material. The CAMA program will provide all of this and more to our members,” Stewart said.
CAMA will be launching the program, including its name and details, at its annual conference, held this year Sept. 16-17 in Victoria. (see CAMA Connection for more information).
Promoting healthy vending is a long-term gain, Stewart said. “Healthy choices are one part of the big picture of presenting yourself as a professional operator who is looking to do the right thing.”