Editor's Plate: Fear and opportunity in vending machines

Who is better suited to help Americans, especially children, solve the obesity epidemic than the food industry?

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There's been a string of news stories over the past few months about vending machines in schools; more to the point, what's in them. Some states are passing legislation that bans carbonated soft drinks, candy and other foods that (they allege) contribute to childhood obesity. And many more states are considering it. Some schools or school districts have their own efforts under way.

It's another battle in the current hot issue of childhood obesity. I talked with some people in the food industry about it and, while they were careful not to contradict federal regulations or take the wrong side in the obesity debate, they weren't happy. I think they look at it the way a journalist looks at a First Amendment issue. Which is to say, "Congress shall make no law abridging our freedom to stock vending machines."

I certainly see their point. But if obesity, especially among children, is as serious as it's made out to be, then it's difficult to argue against anything that appears to be a solution. And besides, there's enormous opportunity in this whole issue. Who is better suited to help Americans, especially children, solve the obesity epidemic than the food industry?

A nationwide survey of vending machines in middle schools and high schools found 75 percent of the drinks and 85 percent of the snacks sold are of poor nutritional value. Admittedly, the study was by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, not the food industry's best friend. But it looks substantial. The study examined 1,420 vending machines in 251 schools. CSPI used it to push for efforts that all foods sold out of vending machines, school stores, and other venues outside of the official school lunch program should make positive contributions to children's diets and health. Not a bad idea.

There already have been some efforts under way. Nestle quickly jumped on this opportunity with promotions that its lowfat (1 percent) milks would make great replacements for carbonated soft drinks. We're no longer talking room-temperature milk in square paper cartons. Nestle's offering five flavors: chocolate, very vanilla, strawberry, double chocolate and white milk, as well as fat-free chocolate. And in plastic, resealable 14-oz. containers (nice that they downsized the portions, as well , big sizes are another pet peeve of mine).

As some Massachusetts and Rhode Island school districts were considering vending machine controls, Stonyfield Farm, a Londonderry, N.H., maker of organic yogurts, subsidized the installation of vending machines stocked with wholesome foods, including the company's yogurt. The machines are stocked with such things as string cheese, pita chips, soy nuts, dried fruit, and carrots and dip.

Coca-Cola and Pepsico arguably have the most to lose when carbonated soft drinks are banned. But these companies also make bottled waters, fruit drinks and energy beverages, and often other snacks, so they also have a lot to gain with just a few alterations in the machines' menus.

Coca-Cola, by the way, carefully went on the record to say it believes the selections in vending machines should be determined as locally as possible, by individual school teams or school district boards, not by state legislatures.

I've seen no suggestions that school vending machines go away entirely. As anyone who is raising a kid knows, they do get hungry a lot, so vending machines are an essential for schools and other locales. But being a part of a solution, rather than a problem, has certain advantages, outside of the pure merit of it. And somebody has to manufacture those juices and waters, granola bars, trail mixes and tuna pouches. Who better than the greatest product development minds of the food industry can make these choices both healthy and delicious? Maybe even hip.

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