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Counting on the push for healthful snacks

Company offers vending machine alternatives

The Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester has a snack machine from Fresh Healthy Vending, which offers baked pita chips, applesauce, and all-natural sodas. But are they really healthy? The Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester has a snack machine from Fresh Healthy Vending, which offers baked pita chips, applesauce, and all-natural sodas. But are they really healthy? (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2011

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The words fresh and healthy are not usually uttered in the same sentence as the word vending. One company hopes to change that — and it succeeds every time someone mentions the name Fresh Healthy Vending.

The California-based enterprise offers salty or sweet snacks and something to wash it down, but the products in their colorful vending machines are touted as more healthful. That is, baked instead of fried chips; natural drinks with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup; granola bars rather than candy bars. Critics say a soda is a soda. But for the company, the timing couldn’t be better. The provisions of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires all foods sold in schools, including vending machines, to meet (as-yet-unspecified) nutrition standards. In Boston, there’s been a longstanding ban on sugary drinks in public schools, and in April, Mayor Thomas Menino expanded that ban to include all city properties and functions.

This, of course, is what the vending company was counting on. “It doesn’t hurt when the mayor and the president are behind your business plan,’’ says Bill Cowin, the franchisee for the Boston area. FHV machines are currently in about 20 sites here, including health clubs, after-school programs, and private schools.

At the FHV machine at Cristo Rey High School in Dorchester recently, students Deandra Turner and Jasmine Laing are buying snacks in the basement cafeteria. “When we heard it was going to be healthy food, we thought it would be nasty,’’ says Turner. “But I love these,’’ she continues, pointing to Stacy’s Simply Naked Pita Chips. Neither misses the old machine. But student Roberto Rodriguez isn’t so sure. “I liked the old snacks better — the Pop-Tarts and soda,’’ he says. As he points out, “There’s a Rite-Aid down the block, and if people want that, they can get it.’’

No one ever said you could put junk food completely out of kids’ reach.

In the lobby of the Healthworks Foundation in Codman Square, outside the gym, Doreen Treacy is positively kvelling. “Isn’t this the most exciting vending machine you’ve ever seen?’’ asks Treacy, director of the DotWell Civic Health Institute. She gestures toward Cheddar Popchips, Back to Nature Mini Chocolate Chip Cookies, Snyder’s Pretzels, and Pirate’s Booty. Lauren Broadhurst, executive director of the Healthworks Foundation, says that her initial approach, when FHV came in, was “a little rigid.’’ Now, she says, she’s backed off a little, recognizing that “Pirate’s Booty is less processed than Cheetos. . . . It’s important to take baby steps.’’

Not far away, at the Boys & Girls Club of Dorchester, students in an after-school program mostly give the machine a thumbs-up. “Some things are a little overpriced,’’ says Twelve Seekins, 10. (Choices run in the $1.25 range.) But he likes the idea of nutritious snacks. “When we grow up we won’t be obese and we’ll have a healthier life and stuff,’’ he says.

Laurene Plourde, the Boys & Girls Club’s director of program development, tried to get healthier choices into the club’s old machine. Sodas and candy were eliminated, but few of the options were actually nutritious. Now there’s applesauce and crisps made from fruit — and soda (all-natural, sugar-sweetened, but soda nonetheless). A straw poll suggests that soda is the pull here and many kids say they prefer the new machine for that reason. Flying off shelves are 12-ounce cans of Blue Sky Cola (42 grams of sugar) and Black Cherry Soda (37 grams). A 12-ounce can of Coke (not offered) contains 39 grams.

Some nutritionists don’t believe a word of the healthy option claims.

“Any beverage that offers only sugar, which is what these so-called organic sodas do, are no better from a nutritional standpoint than the typical soda,’’ says Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietician, mother of three, and author of childhood nutrition books. “A cookie is a cookie and wouldn’t be a cookie if it weren’t loaded with sugar and added fat,’’ she says. Back to Nature Mini Chocolate Chunk Cookies in the FHV machines have 170 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 11 grams of sugar per 35-gram serving. A 32-gram serving of Keebler Soft Batch Chocolate Chip Cookies (not offered), has 150 calories, 7 grams of fat, and 12 grams of sugar.

Ward concedes that there are healthier choices — “the pita chips are fine,’’ she says — but her larger point is that what you find in vending machines should provide some positive nutrient content, not just an absence of negative content. “Popchips don’t have a lot of fat, but they don’t have anything nutritious,’’ she says.

Andrea Gulezian, an extension educator with UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program, agrees that such snacks may not have a lot of nutritional value, but they may be healthier. “You still have to read the labels,’’ she says.

Faced with choices in a vending machine, who is going to read labels (you can’t see them!) and weigh options?

Gulezian has a solution: “Bring an apple.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.