The future of vending in hospitals

Jonathan Hilder, CEO at the Automatic Vending Association, discusses the importance of a unified approach to the healthy vending agenda in hospital settings.

With 64 per cent of adults and 23 per cent of children in the UK now classed as overweight or obese, it is undoubtedly clear that Britain is in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

Frequently in the firing line has been the vending industry and its association with unhealthy snacking. Across Scotland and Wales vending in public spaces, such as hospitals, has, rightly or wrongly, been subjected to a series of regulations which require operators and food and drink manufacturers to meet strict nutritional guidelines and marketing messages.

The result has been the evolution of a new generation of healthier products that are now available through vending.

However, while promoting healthier eating is an essential cog in this vast cycle of lifestyle change, consumer choice also remains a critical component, and any move to ban vending machines from hospitals will only serve to move the point of purchase and remove control of what is consumed. Ultimately, this will not change people’s eating habits, only a powerful and sustained campaign of education can achieve this.

Snacking represents just one per cent of the calorific intake of the British diet and vending represents just 0.50 per cent of this, so banning products from vending leaves 99.95 per cent of the problem untouched.

Effectively, a vending machine is a shop and products are selected based upon consumer demand. Research has shown that, when given the choice of healthier options, buyers will more often than not still opt for the more sugary product, whether that be from a vending machine or retail outlet.

It is important that the vending industry is not unfairly penalised; vending should not accept differential rules or legislation from those imposed on the high street retailer – if it does, then the sector will unquestioningly be placed at an unfair economic disadvantage.

Recognising the need to offer more choice and healthier alternatives, healthy vending has been on the industry’s agenda for many years, reflected in the AVA’s work with University College Birmingham.

Here, students are tasked with developing healthy vending options as part of their Culinary Product Development challenge, ultimately helping to promote an environment whereby healthy vending choices are  welcomed in public spaces such as hospitals.

To support this, the industry is working collaboratively with food and drink manufacturers to prioritise the development of a broader range of healthy products suitable for vending on a mainstream scale.

As an industry, we fully support the notion of increased healthier choices, but those decisions will only be made when consumers are educated on the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, bringing education to the forefront of the agenda is key; it’s about making informed, healthy choices, not limiting those choices by removing them altogether.

Vending can and should be recognised as a facilitator to creating a balanced, healthy lifestyle. It provides an invaluable service, enabling 24 hour unattended retailing and, as such, is an essential, cost-effective  offering in hospitals, especially for those staff members working long overnight shifts.

Importantly, vending forms only a small part of the overall retail solution available to consumers in NHS settings, so banning machines will simply remove the flexibility of 24 hour retailing and force consumers into the manned retail shops where they will still be able to purchase unhealthy products.

As the voice of the vending industry, it is clear that we must unite and work collaboratively with public sector regulatory bodies in order to effectively fight the obesity epidemic while maintaining profitability and sector growth.

Long term, this should not about restricting, but educating Britain on the importance of a healthy and varied diet. And vending has an important role to play in this shift.