And starting Jan. 1, a third of their offerings will be “better for you.” National Automatic Merchandising Association, the trade group representing the $25 billion vending machine industry, announced Wednesday it has committed to substantially increasing the amount of healthy offerings in the nation’s vending machines.
With the support of the Partnership for a Healthier America and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, two nonprofits that work to alleviate obesity in young Americans, NAMA’s 1,000 members have agreed to raise the share of healthy options from 24 percent to 33 percent.
“This is a very big deal for them,” says Nancy E. Roman, chief executive of the Partnership for a Healthier America. “Vending is the nut that hasn’t been cracked, but when you work with a sector-wide group you can move quickly.”
Vending machine foods are disproportionately consumed by middle- and low-income Americans, Roman says. And because vending machine options frequently are shelf-stable foods, they tend to pull for high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed snacks and sugary beverages.
But Roman says the industry is aware that tastes are changing.
“The entire population would like to eat better food products — truck drivers want a chance to eat better food, millennials and Gen Z are leading the way. It’s the vending industry positioning itself for tomorrow’s consumers. It will make a meaningful change in the food culture and drive shifts in food production.”
NAMA chief executive Carla Balakgie sees this next initiative as part of something that started in 2005 when the industry put in place a labeling program to identify “better-for-you” products. NAMA defines “better for you” as a food or beverage that meets at least two of the healthy food standards established by Partnership for a Healthier America, Center for Science in the Public Interest, American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or USDA’s Smart Snacks.
The Partnership for a Healthier America will retain outside auditors to verify vending machine changes, says Roman.
The new healthier options will replace sugar-based beverages with water and non-sugary beverages, and will include apples and bananas, fresh food prepared in USDA-certified kitchens, baked (not fried) chips, string cheese, nuts, dried fruits and sealed sandwiches, according to Josh Rosenberg, the former chief executive of Accent Foods in Pflugerville, Tex.
Accent Foods operates 21,000 vending machines, 1,300 “micro-markets” (unattended convenience stores) and 4,000 pantry services operations. Rosenberg’s company moves 750,000 individual food and beverage units each day, in places like the House and Senate, the Smithsonian Institution, and Johns Hopkins Healthcare.
Some of this push is because of innovations in equipment. Shelf-weighted, sensor-based coolers allow customers to walk up and swipe a credit card, opening the cooler, and through sensors and cameras the equipment determines what you bought and charges you accordingly. The operator is sent real-time restocking information electronically without anyone having to be on-site.
“Tech has allowed us to reach beyond our boundaries,” Rosenberg says. “This is about investing in new technology, retrofitting existing equipment and product changes in existing equipment.”
Vending machines, Balakgie says, are one of the lowest price-point parts of the food industry, so it’s important to maintain a range of options to avoid pricing out low-income people.
For Rosenberg, this shift is an opportunity to compete with the world’s advanced vending machine countries.
“We want to become Japan in unattended retail,” he says.
That said, he doesn’t think the honey bun is going away anytime soon.