The business side of healthy vending.

A case of cash over care.

By Jay Jackson

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All of the Mother team are driven by a simple goal. To help the busy eat better. Our aim is to give hungry, time poor people the opportunity to make an educated choice about what they want to eat and offer them healthier, more nutritious snacks and drinks. But what about a place where you would be forgiven for automatically thinking health would be the top priority?

Our nation’s hospitals.

Do our hospitals offer staff, patients and visitors that same ability to make an informed choice when they need to grab something quick and easy to eat?

On the whole, the answer is quite shockingly, no. Hospital corridors and waiting rooms throughout the UK are adorned with vending machines filled with sugary, fatty products with no healthier options in sight. What is even more shocking is that this remains the case despite the fact obesity now costs the NHS £6.1 billion a year. Right now people are undergoing treatment for obesity related diseases whilst sitting in full view of a machine filled with an array of unhealthy, poorly made products with nothing else on offer.

... obesity now costs the NHS £6.1 billion a year.

To us it seems simple. Change it up and fill our hospitals with a better choice of healthier and more nutritious food. Easy right?

Apparently not. This year we contacted several hospital trusts to enquire as to whether they would consider our machines. After months of attempting to battle through red tape the sad truth of it became clear. Our hospital trusts are monopolized by non-health orientated vending and catering businesses offering high kickbacks. It’s a case of cash over care.

There is however, a glimmer of hope. Earlier this year, Leeds Hospital Teaching Trust in conjunction with Behavioral Insights experts in DHSC and Public Health England decided to test whether healthier vending machines in NHS hospitals are in fact a commercially viable option. They ran a trial in 17 cold drink and mixed snack machines across the trust which assessed whether both the availability and positioning of healthy snacks can encourage healthier choices and whether it is economically viable.

In a two phased approach they both increased the availability of healthy food and drinks and altered the placement of the products, giving the healthier items more prominent positions.

The key findings of the trial were as follows:

Sales of cold drinks increased at the same time as a decrease in average calories and sugar content per product. Sales of bottled water rose by 54% whilst 38% fewer sugary drinks were bought.

There was a decrease in average calorie content per product in the mixed snack machines. A slight rise in sugar was associated with increased sale of dried fruits, not a source of free sugars.

Sales of crisps fell.

Furthermore sales actually rose.

- Bottle Water Sales Increased -

0%

- Fewer Sugary Drinks -

%0

- Obesity Cost to NHS -

£0Bn

This trial alone has resulted Public Health England to recommend that machine retailers replicate the approach.

Hospitals, just like the workplace have the ability to influence our eating habits, positively or negatively. They can either become obesegenic environments or places that actively encourage us to change our eating habits and think carefully before making our choice. We can only hope that other trusts choose to engage in trials like this and demand that their catering companies offer healthier, more nutritious options to their staff, visitors and patients alike.