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Less Fluff, Healthier Stuff: Adopt Healthy Vending Policies

By Mary Beth Powell on February 18th, 2015

I recently had the privilege of attending the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)’s kick-off meeting to announce its new $500 million investment to help all children grow up at a healthy weight. This investment will focus on changing policies in school and community environments through 2025 by supporting research, action and advocacy strategies. In 2007, the Foundation announced an initial investment of $500 million in childhood obesity prevention, including funding Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities. This new infusion of funding will bring RWJF’s total investment in childhood obesity prevention to an impressive $1 billion over a generation.

The meeting was held at Edwards A. Reynolds West Side High School in Manhattan, in part because of the innovative health programs and policies implemented under the strong leadership of its principal, Jean McTavish. A strategically chosen spokesperson was also there to help promote the initiative:  First Lady Michelle Obama. Childhood obesity prevention, after all, has been the First Lady’s signature cause, and her Let’s Move! initiative helped focus national attention on improving the health of our nation’s children. Mrs. Obama shared with us Principal McTavish’s passion for serving her students only healthy foods:

She fought an epic battle to get skinless chicken breasts into school lunches here—that’s a fight we all have to have. And when the vending company wouldn’t fill the machines here with healthy snacks, this woman literally turned those machines around so they were facing the wall, because, as she put it, ‘I don’t have to sell any [unhealthy] food in my school, thank you very much!’”

Taking as drastic a measure as limiting vending machine accessibility is one way to achieve results, but a broader and longer-lasting approach would be to enact healthy vending policies.

This approach would be viable for four of RWJF’s five new priority areas, which are to:

  • Ensure that all children enter kindergarten at a healthy weight.
  • Make a healthy school environment the norm and not the exception across the United States.
  • Make physical activity a part of the everyday experience for children and youth.
  • Make healthy foods and beverages the affordable, available, and desired choice in all neighborhoods and communities.
  • Eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among 0–5 year olds.

Examples of two successful healthy vending initiatives accomplished through Active Living By Design’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities work illustrate the widespread impact that healthy vending policies can have.

  • In Santa Cruz, CA, the United Way of Santa Cruz County was instrumental in helping the Metropolitan District in partnership with a youth advocacy group, Jóvenes SANOS, to pass the Healthy Food and Beverage Options Policy at all Santa Cruz METRO transit facilities.
  • In Chicago, IL, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association worked diligently with the Chicago Park District to approve a new healthy vending policy for all park facilities across the city, impacting nearly 100 vending machines. Because of that success, the City of Chicago passed its own healthy vending ordinance that now requires healthier vending machines in all city departments.

Successful policy adoption takes time. It requires resident and policy maker engagement, timely and strategic advocacy work, and thorough implementation to achieve desired outcomes. Having high-profile champions like the First Lady and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation certainly helps, since their support can substantially move the public opinion needle in the right direction. But the beauty of policy change, from this “policy wonk’s” perspective, is that once it’s in place and vigilantly monitored, it outlives elected officials’ tenures in office, has a better chance of surviving political shifts and achieves long-lasting results.

Mary Beth Powell

Environmental advocate, and die-hard Carolina basketball fan. Former Senior Project Officer at Healthy Places by Design (then Active Living By Design).