By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun
4:35 AM AKST, January 3, 2013
This time of year, people have weight loss on their minds.
According to a 2012 survey published in the University of Scranton's Journal of Clinical Psychology, losing weight is the No. 1 New Year's resolution.
For some Baltimore residents, working toward that goal by eating healthfully has gotten easier over the past year, thanks to the introduction of healthy snacks in their office or school vending machines.
In December, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman signed an executive order banning the sale of high-sugar drinks in county buildings and at county-sponsored events; Baltimore City is exploring similar initiatives.
"Healthy vending is hot," says L.A. Brickner, owner of the Baltimore franchise of Fresh Healthy Vending, a California company that stocks its climate-controlled vending machines with whole food snacks, including yogurt, juice and organic apple chips.
Though some are critical of the Howard County ban, saying it limits consumer choice, Brickner believes a shift to more healthful vending options is a good move for area residents.
She started the local franchise a year ago, after many years of interest in nutrition. "After I bent the ears of my family and friends about the evils of hydrogenated fats and high-fructose corn syrup, I started the company," she says. "It's a bigger soapbox!"
Today, Fresh Healthy Vending machines are in about 20 locations around the region, including the School of Rock, Jewish community centers, and some Baltimore City middle and high schools.
Students helped bring the machines to Dunbar High School, according to Principal Kristina Kyles.
"Last year, my students brought up that they were interested in getting vending machines," she says. "But I didn't feel comfortable providing unhealthy options. I wanted to expose students to healthy food. We found the healthy machines through Michelle Obama's Get Fit campaign. We loved the idea and now have three machines."
Kyles says that despite some initial complaints about the vending options, her students have come around. "I knew my kids would be frustrated at the beginning," she says. "But now the machines are slammed and have to be refilled on a weekly basis. When the team comes to replenish the machines, the kids interact with them. They're really engaged."
Favorite snacks at Dunbar High School include apple crisps, granola packs and Pirate's Booty, a puffed rice and corn snack food.
At the School of Rock Baltimore, Melody Easton, the school's general manager, acknowledges that she's a frequent user of the new vending machines. "I prefer whole foods and real foods, so I like having options like pita chips and hummus, and iced tea that's not sweetened," she says. "I'm probably more apt to buy something from the vending machine, since I have those options!"
Brickner says the snacks are more expensive than traditional vending machine options, but only slightly. In Fresh Healthy Vending machines, snacks range from 75 cents to just over $2. The No. 1 seller — bottled water — costs $1, comparable to other machines.
"Compared to traditional vending machines, we have a broader range of products," she says. Because Fresh Healthy Vending machines are climate-controlled, the company can stock perishable items, like smoothies and yogurt.
"Old traditional vending machines have products that sit for months at a time," says Brickner. "Our products almost all have expiration dates."
Though individual snacks may be more expensive than their traditional counterparts, some companies consider offering healthful snacks a smart move, from a long-term economic perspective.
Allegeant, a Timonium-based "accountable care solutions" company, helps organizations manage health care expenses, in part by encouraging employees to adopt healthier habits.
"The more we walked around our clients' buildings, the more we realized how many tough choices people had to make," says Michael Barger, Allegeant's vice president of client consulting. "Every snack machine was filled with candy. How can you ask people to start living healthier lives, but not arm them with the correct tools to do so?"
Allegeant has worked with clients to bring in vending options and overhaul cafeteria menus. The company also encourages incentives for preventive screenings and checkups.
"The decision to get a preventive screening done now can have a direct impact on future medical issues," says Barger. "The same holds true for healthy options in a vending machine. If I choose the apple instead of the candy bar, that can have a direct impact on future choices."
Access to more healthful food is equally important for young people learning about how to eat better, says Kyles. "Students have so much access to nonhealthy food, When they engage with the healthy items in the machines, it's impacting our culture in a good way."
School of Rock's Easton echoes Kyles' sentiments. "Working with kids, we teach them not just music, but also all the fun stuff and social skills that go with that. It's good for them to have healthy options, since so often they're bombarded with poor choices."
For Brickner, helping people is the end goal. "That's why I'm in it," she says. "It's not because I want to take over the vending world. It's just an amazing cause."