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City vending machines get tech upgrade, health downgrade

The vending machine at the city of Sacramento’s Hart Senior Center offers a range of items, including veggie chips and fruit and nut bars. A new vending contract approved Thursday by the City Council will cut the required percentage of healthy items in city facilities from 50 percent to 25 percent.
The vending machine at the city of Sacramento’s Hart Senior Center offers a range of items, including veggie chips and fruit and nut bars. A new vending contract approved Thursday by the City Council will cut the required percentage of healthy items in city facilities from 50 percent to 25 percent. scaiola@sacbee.com

Vending machines in a handful of Sacramento city facilities and community centers will soon have more slots for soda and candy than water and granola bars, under a vendor contract approved Thursday night.

A total of 50 snack and beverage machines will be affected by the new vendor contract, intended to replace a prior contract that expires this month. That agreement, made with a former vendor, complied with the city’s 2011 Health Nutrition Vending Policy requiring that 50 percent of offerings in city machines be healthy options.

When that vendor’s contract expired, the city reached out to about 60 new suppliers to find a suitable replacement. The former vendor did not submit a proposal, but the consensus among vendors interviewed was that stocking half of the machines with healthy options would not be economically feasible, said John Dangberg, assistant city manager.

In talks with city staff, some vendors said healthy food items don’t sell as fast as standard snacks, and items that weren’t purchased needed to be frequently changed out of the machines when they became stale. That may have burdened the vendor with an additional cost of servicing the machines, Dangberg said.

The new contract with Legend Vending Inc. requires that only 25 percent of the machine be stocked with healthy choices. The new machines, which will be installed in two weeks, can accept payment from smartphones as well as credit cards, and include a sensor function that automatically reimburses customers when a snack does not drop from the shelf. That means no more frustrated office workers kicking the glass – a feature that Dangberg called “a wonderful enhancement.”

But it also means a reduction in healthy options at eight of the city’s public use facilities, including the Oak Park Community Center, the Belle Cooledge Communtiy Center and the Hart Senior Center. Councilman Rick Jennings said at Thursday’s meeting that he was “concerned about more unhealthy snacks and beverages going into our machines.” He made a motion for staff to continue negotiating with the new vendor to see if a higher percentage of healthy items could be agreed upon.

That higher percentage would come at the expense of the city’s revenue from the machines – 19 percent of what the vendor makes, according to the newly approved contract. The vending machines only bring in about $6,000 per year and are not a major source of revenue for the city, Dangberg said. In coming weeks, the city may sacrifice some of that profit in exchange for the vendor providing more than the minimum 25 percent healthy snacks designated in the contract.

“If that means zeroing out that money that would come in to get a higher percentage for healthy options in our vending machines for our employees and for all the kids that have the opportunity to use our machines at our community centers, I’d be willing to give up that commission,” Jennings said at the meeting.

Dangberg said the health of staff and community members is “very important,” but doubts that the percentage of slots occupied by healthy items will have a major impact on vending machine habits. People who choose water over soda will do so whether the machine is 50 percent water or 25 percent water, he said. And when healthy item slots get sold out, the vendor can refill them as rapidly as he or she refills the potato chip slots, depending on consumer demand.

“The consumer is going to drive this,” Dangberg said. “We’re going to see what happens. If there is market demand for the healthy choices, there will be more revenue for the vendor than the standard choices.”

The original vending machine policy, passed by City Council in 2011, required that half of food items offered meet specific nutritional metrics for trans fats, calories, total percentage of calories from fat, sugar and sodium, adapted from nutritional standards for California public schools.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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