KANSAS CITY — It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and your stomach is gurgling.
Before long, you’re in vending-machine land eyeballing the choices, which for decades have consisted mostly of pop, chips, chocolate, and those fluorescent orange crackers. But increasingly, workers and others with gurgling stomachs are finding a new ally to help slay the afternoon munchies: the healthy vending machine.
Instead of the standard junk-food fortresses filled with the four food groups of the apocalypse — salt, sugar, carbs, and fat — there are machines from companies such as Fresh Healthy Vending, h.u.m.a.n. Healthy Vending, and Vend Natural, offering low-calorie and low-fat fare in schools, malls, office buildings, and more.
This is 2:30 p.m. in a different universe. Suddenly, you’re peering through Plexiglas at carrot sticks, cheese, yogurt, fruit smoothies, veggie chips, and Fuji apple crisps — even soy milk, organic lemonade, and mango coconut water.
Healthy vending started several years ago with machines on both coasts and has moved to the Midwest within the last two years. It makes sense given the increased emphasis on better diets, said Jolly Backer, CEO of Fresh Health Vending of San Diego.
“Have you been in a Whole Foods lately?” he said. “You can’t move in there. They’re all buying the stuff [we’re selling]. People are becoming more aware of choices that will make a difference in their family’s health.”
For Fresh Healthy Vending, that means growth. The company has about 500 machines across the country, with 300 more coming in the next two months.
“We’ve sold 80 franchises just this year,” Mr. Backer said. “The growth is incredible.”
Martha Blood, a local franchisee, operates 10 of the brightly colored machines in the metro area, in places such as Hallmark, the Jewish Community Center, and St. Luke’s Hospital.
She bought a Fresh Health Vending franchise several months ago, after being disappointed to find only junk food in a hospital vending machine. Today, she does tastings for potential clients to let them sample the unfamiliar products in her machines.
“They’re excited to try it and for it to be an option in their office,” she said.
She’s in good company.
“We’ve seen more healthy vending machines over the last two years,” said Jackie Clark, spokeswoman for the National Automatic Merchandising Association. “It’s an outgrowth of consumer lifestyles. But it also has been growing because companies have been looking to the vending industry to be part of their wellness programs.”
Sandy Milam, director of nutrition at St. Luke’s on the Plaza, installed a healthy machine in May after getting emails asking for healthier choices and gluten-free options.
Over lunch on a recent afternoon, Emily Allinder, the hospital’s director for strategic business development, bought Fuji apple crisps from the new machine for $1.50.
“They’re very good,” she said, taking a bite. “I’m a vegetarian, and I try not to eat vending machine food because of the high sugar and sodium content. But if you can grab something out of a machine without compromising healthiness, that’s ideal.”
But registered nurse Kelly Mitchell was skeptical.
“I don’t think a lot of it is that healthy,” she said. “These chocolate chip cookies aren’t healthy. Maybe the Chocolate Silk would be OK, or the apple crisps — and the green teas are nice, but [at $2] they’re kind of expensive.”
Ms. Milam said it’s all about giving people options. In the next several years, she plans to put healthy vending machines throughout the hospital.
Healthy-eating advocates aren’t exactly turning handsprings over healthy vending. It’s still eating out of a machine, and some of the so-called “healthy” alternatives aren’t much better than the junk they’re replacing, they say. But they think it’s a step in the right direction.
The reason? Vending machines — most stocked with high sugar, fat, and calories — offer instant gratification when eaters are at their most vulnerable. For decades, the $42 billion vending industry has helped feed the nation’s growing obesity problem, health advocates say. But when stocked with better choices, those same machines can be used to start reversing the problem they helped create.
The vending industry is trying to do its part. Since 2005, Ms. Clark said, more than 1,200 groups have signed up for the Fit Pick program, which identifies healthier vending choices in the machines.
“And where operators have installed that program, sales have gone up,” Ms. Clark said.
But adding healthy options to vending machines does have its limits.
“If the program is too aggressive, there’s a consumer backlash,” Ms. Clark said. “Then people just bring their favorites from home, or buy them from a store.”
Acceptance of the healthy machines varies, Ms. Clark said. The machines do far better in California than in the Deep South and better at health clubs than construction sites.
In June, the Jewish Community Center replaced a more traditional machine with a healthy one .
“We’re trying to get away from traditional snack foods and get into more healthy options,” said Jose Romero, assistant director of the center’s fitness and sports department “We’re a fitness and sports department [and] we try to model that.”
“Very positive,” Mr. Romero said. “We’ve gotten numerous comments saying, ‘We’re happy you made this change.’ ”
Other changes are even more dramatic.
Sean Kelly, CEO of h.u.m.a.n. Healthy Vending of Santa Monica, Calif., offers a healthy vending machine unique in the industry — one that gives customers specific ingredient and nutritional information and health benefits on a digital LCD screen.
“We didn’t just throw some graphics on a traditional vending machine,” he said. “We added the digital LCD screen to advertise the products and educate our customers.”
Mr. Kelly’s machines are smarter in another way too. Complete with remote monitors, they are capable of sending more than 30 text alerts. One of them warns operators when fresh fruit is in danger of going bad. Operators also can preset sales alerts in every row so they know when one needs to be refilled.
Currently, h.u.m.a.n. has machines in nine Anytime Fitness Clubs in the metro area and more than 500 machines around the country. The company is planning an expansion in the Kansas City area in October.
Mr. Kelly knows what’s driving the healthy vending trend.
“I think it’s a recognition that one of the world’s ills is inaccessibility to healthy food, snacks and drinks, and that that inaccessibility is causing massive bad habits,” he said.
Bad habits he’d like to stop.
“H.u.m.a.n. is not just a vending company,” said Mr. Kelly, who seriously considered going to medical school to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. “We’re really an anti-obesity company. We’re not just doing this for the money. We’re doing this because we think it’s very important.”
Years ago, it was harder to get people to try healthier options in vending machines, Mr. Kelly said.
“Not only did people used to think that healthy [vending] foods used to taste like cardboard,” he said. “They actually did. But the food industry has made massive strides over the last 10 years” in making healthier vending choices taste good.
It also was harder to get franchisees to buy healthy vending machines in the past.
“One of the big misconceptions in the industry is that when you replace traditional vending machines with healthy vending machines, your sales are not going to be as healthy,” Mr. Kelly said. “We’ve found that to be exactly opposite. Nine times out of 10, we will meet or exceed the overall sales volume of a traditional vending machine that we are replacing.”
Bill Carpenter, president of Vend Natural in Annapolis, Md., said his company’s sales are strong too. Vend Natural operates more than 470 machines, primarily on the coasts.
Like other companies, Vend Natural is soon planning to expand to the Midwest. The company’s vending machines dispense bananas, pineapple, grapes, apple slices, and a vegetable medley, along with hundreds of other products.
“Look, I eat Snickers bars,” he said. “But there are so many other interesting products that the public never sees. Believe it or not, I like rice milk now. And I never would have tried it otherwise.”
Mr. Carpenter knows healthy vending machines aren’t for everybody.
“I don’t look at us as replacing the traditional choices like Coke and Snickers,” he said. “I just think there’s a broad enough market to offer a healthier alternative. We believe choice is important. You can’t mandate good health. But you can give people a choice.”