Partnerships lead to healthier vending options on base

Airman 1st Class Silly Diabara, with the 72nd Force Support Squadron, makes a selection from a Healthy Vending machine at the Tinker Base Exchange. Approximately 90 machines across Tinker comply with FitPick standards, following the "35-10-35" requirements.

Airman 1st Class Silly Diabara, with the 72nd Force Support Squadron, makes a selection from a Healthy Vending machine at the Tinker Base Exchange. Approximately 90 machines across Tinker comply with FitPick standards, following the "35-10-35" requirements. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

A multitude of joint partnerships in various capacities have resulted in positive change on Tinker Air Force Base. One most recent success was achieved through a Health and Wellness Center channel, linking AAFES, Aramark and Imperial Vending through a grant championed by the American Heart Association. The positive change implemented a variety of healthy snack options for vending machines across the installation.

Tinker’s move to healthier vending was driven by m-NEAT, military-nutritional environment assessment tools. The tool is designed to help Department of Defense communities measure accessibility to healthy food options. Further, the appraisals assess environmental factors and policies at the community level that support healthy eating. M-NEAT was developed to help health promotion professionals, commanding officers and others in the DOD community in measuring accessibility to healthy alternatives.

Effective March 2011, AAFES, which oversees vending operations for installation buildings hosting a 50 percent or greater of military members, created a master contract, which required 15 percent of its content meet a “FitPick” criteria. That mandate would gradually increase over time, moving to 30 percent in 2013 and pushing to 35 percent the following year. Established in 2005, FitPick was created as a healthy vending and micro-market labeling program seeking to more easily identify products that meet recognized nutrition standards.

Empowering consumers to make more informed snack choices, FitPick uses stickers, which denote items that feature specific values for calories, fat, sugar and sodium. More commonly referred to as “35-10-35,” the numbers signify that in order for a product to meet FitPick standards, it must contain less than 35 percent caloric content in total fat, less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat and less than 35 percent by weight of total sugars (excluding fruits, vegetables and milk).

In 2009, Tinker’s original score was 39 percent on vending options and has since increased its score to 83 percent. Nutrition Program Manager Wendi Knowles expressed the long-term goal, of course, would be to reach 100 percent. However, in order to receive the full 100 percent marks for m-NEAT, a vending machine must contain at least 50 percent of its contents to meet FitPick standards. After a few different trials with vendors, Tinker was able to find its current operator, Imperial Vending. Imperial sealed the deal because they were able to provide the healthier products that met the criteria. With contracts in place, the next task became ensuring the healthy alternatives were going to sell.

Through a grant authorized by the Accelerating National Community Health Outcomes through Reinforcing Partnerships program and pushed by the American Heart Association, Tinker was able to conduct two taste testing surveys in commonly trafficked areas, Bldg. 3001 on May 28 and the 72nd Medical Group on June 16.

The ANCHOR program is a national grant whose central mission is to reduce chronic disease through nutrition, physical activity and smoke-free initiatives. Each market was assigned one “issue area,” and Oklahoma was tasked with nutrition, specifically, healthy vending.

According to Kasey Volpe, regional campaign manager for the American Heart Association, the grant was aimed at running an educational drive to raise awareness and promote healthier options, while simultaneously implementing environmental, systems and policy changes.

“Environmental change would be putting healthier options in a machine at a specific location. Systems change would be the vendor implementing these new items at all locations, thus creating a change in the entire business management system. Policy change would be a formal policy being enacted at an organization,” Volpe explained. In Tinker’s case, a systems change was applied, as the vendor is increasing healthier selections throughout all machines.

To put the right products in the machines without hurting the volume of sales, the AHA, AAFES, Aramark and Imperial conducted surveys with seven sample items. The samples included everything from KIND, KASHI and Special K bars to pop chips, popcorn and Annie’s gluten free cookies. With an assortment of options and an estimated 550 responses, surveyors were able to determine not only the snacks that were the most popular in taste, but which healthy options would generate the best sales.

Route manager for Imperial Vending, Jeremy Wilhite explained that there are approximately 90 consumable machines filtered across the installation and each one maintains the 35 percent standard, with at least two columns on the right of every machine containing FitPick options. He indicated that monthly sales vary from building to building and can be dependent on the number of inhabitants, as well as products in the machines.

As the push for healthier options surged forward, the requirements and accountability shifted, as well. In implementing any new change, there were set stages of gradual progression. Initially setting a 10 percent requirement of healthier options, standards continued to increase thus meeting the demands for more and more nutritious snacks. Angela Gray, AAFES service business manager, explained that unlike other bases across the nation, Tinker was already a step or two ahead of the curve, consistently.

“When requirements upped from 10 percent to 20 percent, [Tinker] was already at 25 percent,” she said. “When another increase was made, our machines here were already at 35 percent.”

There has been a high demand for healthier machines, and through steadfast efforts from multiple parties, demands were able to be met. Although, there is no intention of stopping there. Ms. Knowles hopes that eventually there will be even more nutrient-rich options in the future and is optimistic about positive feedback to help simultaneously improve the healthy lifestyle push, as well as delivering the demands. However, for now the goal is to make people aware of the alternatives that are currently available.

“We want people to utilize the healthy options, but the key is to inform people and let them know that those healthy options are available,” Knowles expressed.

Through partnerships –  military and civilian, on and off the installation – Tinker leads the pack with the highest percentage of healthy alternatives offered in vending machines. Striving to achieve maximum points through m-NEAT, Tinker’s health and wellness continues to strive for improvement in our military and civilian Airmen by joining forces and tackling challenges that others deem “impossible.”