To Vend or Not to Vend

by Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA

A typical vending machine station
A typical vending machine station / image: Amy Wagenfeld

I have been thinking about vending machines since last year when I attended and presented at the National Children’s Youth Gardening Conference hosted at Cornell University. What is my inspiration? Located in the lobby of the Mann Library is a vending machine loaded with fresh apples. Graduate students in the Horticulture Program pick the apples from the Cornell and Horticulture Section’s Lansing Orchards and keep the machine well stocked. Proceeds from sales benefit the Society for Horticulture Graduate Student Association.

What a surprise! I had never seen anything like it. My experiences with vending machines are those full of soft drinks and not-so-healthy snacks. One thing led to another, and I began taking pictures of vending machines, making note of where they were located and what their contents included. Then I started to do a bit of a search for research on their impact on children’s health. Here I share a few thoughts about how landscape architects committed to promoting children’s health and wellness can contribute to a conversation about vending machines.

Eat healthy and local. Mann Library’s apple vending machine dispenses apples grown on the Cornell University campus. / images: Cornell University student Juana Muñoz Ucros

Can we agree that vending machines can be found pretty much everywhere? Not only are they everywhere, one can purchase almost anything from them, including books, food, clothing, personal care items, and even cars (if you watch television you will know about the “Carvana” car purchasing model). I have seen vending machines in parks, airports, schools, hotels, office buildings, prison visiting rooms, hospital waiting rooms, on street corners, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Vending machines serve a purpose: fast, easy access to something you want, crave, need, or do not know you need, but looking at the contents might convince you otherwise. They represent consumerism and immediate gratification. It is not my place to judge their worth, but what I do want to do is explore the impact that vending machines may have on children.

Nature interrupted. Well-stocked vending machines on the grounds of the Tokyo National Museum. / image: David Hsi
Thirsty visitors experience no shortage of beverages at these vending machines located near the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. / image: David Hsi

Children need to eat a healthy and well-balanced, nutritious diet in order to grow and develop. The food and beverages sold in vending machines often tend to be high in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories. What kind of message does this convey to children when they are stocked with unhealthy food and located in places designed to heal, such as pediatric hospitals and clinics? For instance, and based on results of a survey study, researchers in Cardiff, Wales suggested that the National Health Service take notice of the contents of vending machines in pediatric healthcare facilities and rethink what they are stocked with (Kibblewhite, Bowker, & Jenkins, 2010). Apples, anyone?

A one-stop multi-purpose vending machine. / image: Amy Wagenfeld

Moving from healthcare to educational settings, now let’s think about school cafeterias. When children and youth have access to vending machines, research shows reduced consumption of healthier food choices such as fruit and vegetables that that are readily available in the school cafeteria (Patrick & Nicklas, 2005). Using data collected from the third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, it was found that for middle school aged children there was an association between higher BMI scores and vending machines stocked with nutritionally lacking foods and located near school cafeterias. Interestingly, these same unhealthy foods made available in the cafeteria were associated with lower BMI scores (Fox, Hedley-Dodd, & Gleason, 2009). Is it all about the machine? This is concerning. What is being done? Are there exemplars to address the vending machine issue?

Think Midwest. Chicago has the largest municipal park system in the US and was one of the first cities to “improve park food environments through more healthful snack vending” through the Chicago Park District’s 100% Healthier Snack Vending Initiative (Mason, Zaganjor, Bozlak, Lammel-Harmon, Gomez-Feliciano, & Becker, 2014). The purpose of the initiative is not to eliminate vending but is about educating consumers and ensuring the contents of the vending machines include only healthy and nutritious snacks and beverages. Bravo!

Time out to think about what you are purchasing from a vending machine. / image: Amy Wagenfeld

While landscape architects may not be able to impact the state of vending machines in school cafeterias, I think there is room to consider how they are included in children’s gardens in healthcare facilities and in private and public outdoor spaces.

Our interoceptive system is responsible for internal bodily functions like hunger, thirst, and feeling hot or cold. To maintain the interoceptive system means having options for eating and drinking, particularly when we are outside. Based solely on interoception, I think there is reason to include vending machines in outdoor spaces. There is more to consider. In order to support healthy childhood development, the contents of vending machines need to include only healthy, low fat, low salt, and low sugar foods, and even better, fresh foods, when possible. Vending machines can be creatively and discretely woven into the landscape—housed in an alcove designed to look like an apple or banana gives users a clear message that inside this alcove is a place to purchase a piece of fruit. Another alcove shaped like a bottle of water is an ideal space for housing a vending machine stocked with water or low sugar juices. Vending machines themselves are not the issue; what they are stocked with is. Landscape architects can contribute to positively changing the vending machine culture.

References

Fox, M.K., Hedley-Dodd, A., & Gleason, A.W.P. (2009). Association between school food environment and practices and body mass index of US public school children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(2 Supplement), S108-S117.

Kibblewhite, S., Bowker, S., & Jenkins, H. R. (2010). Vending machines in hospitals – are they
healthy? Nutrition & Food Science, 40(1), 26-28.

Mason, M., Zaganjor, H., Bozlak, C.T., Lammel-Harmon, C., Gomez-Feliciano, L., & Becker, A.B. (2014). Working with community partners to implement and evaluate the Chicago Park District’s 100% Healthier Snack Vending Initiative. Preventing Chronic Disease, 11, E135.

Patrick, H., & Nicklas, T.A. (2005). A review of family and social determinants of children’s eating patterns and diet quality. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 24(2), 83-92.

Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, is Co-Communications Director for the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN) and Principal of design+cOnsulTation.

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