Area schools, businesses start choosing organic vending options
By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
It looks like another vending machine in a line of refrigerated units that offer candy bars, potato chips, nuts and soft drinks.
But the orange and yellow machine with a printed sign screaming "Fresh Healthy Vending!" is not what hungry consumers might expect to find when they search out snacks at area schools, corporate offices or fitness centers.
"Right now in Virginia we are the first one in [Fresh] Healthy Vending," said Sunil Kumar, who, with his wife Rashmi, has opened a franchise of the California-based Fresh Healthy Vending in Frederick County. The company, which has been in operation since June 2010, joins others across the country in an effort to address America's growing market for healthier food options.
"They're saying 'We're tired of junk food, we don't want junk food in schools,'" said Jolly Backer, CEO of Fresh Healthy Vending, who spoke by phone from the corporate office in San Diego.
The company, which has more than 100 franchisees and about 1,200 machines in use, is in 35 states, Canada and Puerto Rico, he said.
"That's all we carry is organic, natural foods," Backer said. "We have over 500 items to choose from, which is great. You can change it up if you want to."
The Kumars have placed 10 vending machines across Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, at Randolph-Macon Academy in Front Royal, Massanutten Military Academy in Woodstock, Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Briarwoods High School in Ashburn, the Sportsplex in Winchester and Stonebrook Club in Winchester.
"It takes time, anything new it takes time," Kumar said. Still, the couple has had a good response so far.
"All very positive, they're very happy," he said. "They have options they didn't know."
At the Sportsplex, the new machine accompanies a line of others, giving customers a wide variety.
"It seems to be fine. We've been getting a good response," said Kelley Callahan, operations manager at the facility.
"A couple people commented that it's nice to have the options," she said. "We're in the business for a healthy living as well ... giving them that healthy option."
The machines offer snacks comparable to what consumers might find in other machines -- only healthier, Kumar said.
Potato chips in the new machines are baked instead of fried, or they're puffed.
Machines at Randolph-Macon Academy offer yogurt and apple sauce, which so far have been big hits among students, said director of student life, Michael Williams.
Drinks through the company include Tazo teas, Stonyfield smoothies and a variety of juices. The website www.freshvending.com posts nutrition information for products the company sells.
"Is it all healthy?" Kumar said. "Maybe not." But it's better than many of the alternatives he added.
"Some of these products still have sugar and still have carbohydrates in them," Williams said. But he stresses a difference between synthetic ingredients of other products and the more natural ingredients in these.
What the machines include depends on who the likely patrons will be and what the sponsoring business or school would like to offer its consumers.
In a corporate location, Kumar said, "They tend to eat more healthy. ... They'll have more apple crisps and they'll drink more water," he said. Machines in office buildings also are more likely to offer lunch options than a school machine, which would have more snack items, he said.
The products sold by Fresh Healthy Vending cost more than their traditional counterparts, but Kumar is not so concerned with the additional price.
He counts on those looking for healthier options to overlook the added cost of 25 to 50 cents, he said.
Unlike many other machines, these accept credit cards.
"Another thing you will notice about these machines is they are smart machines," Kumar said. If an item does not dispense because of a machine malfunction, he said, the machine will return the customer's change, he said.
Customers will find that debit or credit purchases will be a minimum of $4, regardless of the cost of the item purchased, but Kumar assures that the difference of the overcharge will be credited back to the card afterward.
Products in the machines are not labeled, which Kumar hopes will encourage consumers to choose Fresh Healthy Vending's products based on their quality rather than their cost; however, customers can find out the price of an item by typing in the product code when they choose their option from the machine, he said.
For the Kumars, their side business as franchisees is more of a personal cause as the parents of two daughters, ages 6 and 10.
"It helps the community, it's good for kids," said Kumar, an IT professional in Frederick County.
"We always had struggled to find healthy stuff when we went out," said his wife, a physician of internal medicine at Winchester Medical Center.
Williams has noticed a difference in students' behavior and energy levels since Randolph-Macon banned most of its vending machines three years ago.
"We're a military prep school, and we want to prepare our kids for college and prepare our kids for life," he said, but he noticed "They're gaining an insane amount of weight in their first [few] months here."
"Parents were calling and complaining and concerned that [their children] were jacking up on Honey Buns and on brownies," he said. Teachers would first complain about cadets' overexcitement in class and, an hour or two later, about the pupils' inability to stay awake during lessons, he said.
The school banned vending machines and instead signed a deal with Coca-Cola to offer its lower diet drinks and water on campus.
It still wasn't a healthy option, Williams said, but it was better.
"It cut down on a lot of kids falling asleep in class," he said, though he could not pinpoint a direct correlation between the school's actions and the results.
Since adding three of Fresh Healthy Vending's machines in buildings on campus, Williams said the children have been showing an interest in healthier products.
"It's been slow," he said. "Kids look at the stuff, and they don't recognize the labels." Then a couple of brave pupils tried the new options and "They start passing the word that it's pretty good," Williams said.
"The idea was to try to offer some more healthy options," he said.
Kumar agrees that getting out the word about the products sold through Fresh Healthy Vending has been one of the tough parts.
It's been a tough sell, trying to change the public's idea of vending machines in general.
"Most of the schools, this is their first vending machine," Kumar said.
"I was kind of surprised they didn't have any. ... The good thing is they have the healthy option," Kumar said.
"We just want them to first get used to it," he said. "So far ... it's very positive, the response. I mean they're happy, and the kids are happy."
For information about Fresh Healthy Vending, visit www.freshvending.com.