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Natural Vending Machines and the Psychology of Snacking
Sarah Rich, 23 Mar 07
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How many times a day do you think about food? I couldn't even guess my own answer, but it's a high number, to be sure. These days, if you wanted to, you could find food every time you thought about it, whether you were at the car wash or the hardware store or the park. This landscape of ubiquitous munchies has a real social and psychological impact on eating behaviors. It may make us feel secure, but it's also making us collectively less healthy, one Snickers at a time. One of the participants as this year's Doors of Perception conference, Margie Morris -- a senior researcher at Intel -- gave a provocative presentation about the social behaviors we construct in order to be sure we have food around us. For example, we may bring a bag of cookies to a friend's house as a "gift," knowing that the next time we visit, those cookies will be there and we will be able to eat them. It amounts to a stashing ritual in which we separate ourselves from the tendency to overeat by placing treats strategically in other people's pantries, but then permit ourselves the indulgence when it's not from our own kitchen. Seems extreme, but ask yourself if you've ever done it, even unconsciously...

The point is not that indulgence is unconditionally bad, or that self-deprivation will solve our problems, but that the constant availability of food has so confused our relationship with eating that we are literally paying for it in hospital bills, cholesterol counts, and the emotional exhaustion of being physically unhealthy.

The further point -- the solutions point -- of Margie's project, is that we can construct new social behaviors that help us regulate our intake, enjoy our food more, and develop boundaries around where and when eating makes sense for our health and wellbeing. Eating in groups is a big one; when we share meals, we go slower, we notice fullness, and there's a gentle social line around the start and conclusion of the meal. Not to mention that meals eaten in groups, whether at home or in a restaurant, are less likely to be made up of prepackaged (and individually packaged) items that require excess energy for production, generate waste and lack freshness.

Access to adequate, healthy food is a basic human right, and lack of it can promote fear of scarcity that leads to unhealthy habits. For now, in some places like schools and offices without healthy meal programs, a vending machine with nutritionally-beneficial food can offer that kind of access without anyone having to modify their standard behavior. And since our snack-crazed culture seems loathe to let go of "grab & go" eating habits, we might as well have healthier options. Vending machines seem like almost the only food sources left that rarely -- if ever -- have even one healthy offering. Even New York's JFK airport and my local 7-11 have shelves of transfat-free snacks. Now YoNaturals may seal the deal by putting wholesome food in a machine.

Perhaps the best thing about YoNaturals' start-up mission is a plan to get good food into schools through their vending machines. As it is, kids are consuming massive quantities of empty calories, hydrogenated oil, carcinogenic colorants, sodium and refined sugar. When the ability to purchase one's own food amounts to a sense of independence and adulthood, it's hard to convince a junior high student that eating junk is a bad idea. YoNaturals plans to sell organic milks, smoothies, granola bars and organic carrots. They will also target offices and health clubs where they can sell natural energy and sports drinks, hot microwavable meals and protein bars.

So where's the line? I'm in favor of a school vending machine that doesn't dispense hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup. I'm also in favor of teaching kids that establishing defined, social mealtimes actually makes eating better, and the hours in between more focused and productive. No doubt the latter is a greater and longer-term challenge, and for now, I'm sure the next time my stomach rumbles in the middle of a hectic day, I'll be wishing there were a YoNatural's machine nearby instead of a Coca-Cola dispenser.

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Excellent observations! The ubiquity of food really is a driver for poor eating habits and placing vending machines in schools only teaches the next generation of customers to learn those bad eating habits. The rationale for placing these machines in schools (money for education) is obscene and should be removed.

Also, placing a Carbon Facts sheet (like the Nutrional Facts label on foods) would help people in adding another dimension to eating snacks: how much energy went into making, packaging and transporting the food. Maybe local snacks will become the next big thing in these Eco-snack machines.

Posted by: Xavier Figueroa on 24 Mar 07

on another page, yo! naturals says they're "part of the self-service revolution." single-serving, disposable food packaging is the kind of revolution i believe the free world should stand against.

Posted by: hibiscus on 25 Mar 07

What are people paying for the products out of these vending machines? Is this aimed at making the upper-middle class feel more pleased with themselves or to make healthier food options available to everyone?

Posted by: claptap on 26 Mar 07

I'd also like to know the prices of the food these machines sell. It sounds great to sell healthy fruit smoothies to kids (and smoothies are one of the sweetest, easiest-to-market-to-kids health products around), but if they cost twice as much as a can of soda (possibly more), then what do you expect them to buy?

Posted by: Mike Metcalf on 26 Mar 07

For the most part vending machines are paid for by companies who have contracts to fill them with particular brands of products. For instance, the university I attend uses a vending companies who exclusively sell frito-lays, cadbury, or coke products. It has recently been published that my school, Ryerson U in Toronto, signed a deal of $800k with coke, I highly doubt any other vending machines are coming close.

Posted by: J-Lab on 27 Mar 07

For the most part vending machines are paid for by companies who have contracts to fill them with particular brands of products. For instance, the toronto university I attend (Ryerson) uses vending companies who exclusively sell frito-lays, cadbury, or coke products. It has recently been published that my school signed a deal amounting to $800k with Coke, I highly doubt any other vending machines are coming close to this campus.

Posted by: J-Lab on 27 Mar 07

Cut out the middle man & grow edible landscaping!

Posted by: Cathy on 28 Mar 07



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