at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

With the pace of our lives arguably becoming ever busier, those with business acumen in this domain have clearly seen the role that vending machines can play in terms of fulfilling our need to eat. Vending machines can be seen just about everywhere: stations, garage forecourts, hotels and theme parks are just a few of the locations where you’ll find them. They also take the moral low ground in places where you wouldn’t expect to find them, such as schools, sports centres, and even at the Olympic Games.

This might be considered acceptable if the machines contained healthy foods, but they usually don’t, and while the occasional Mars Bar is not bad per se, the problem arises from the fact that vending machines give children and teenagers unbridled access to junk food at moments when responsible adults are not necessarily going to be there to guide them. I was going to shopping malls and cinemas (very vending-machine-heavy places) without an adult from the age of eleven, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. From about this age, too, especially in large cities, children make their own way to school (passing through vending-machine dominated railway stations), and while many schools have banned vending machines by now, the establishment I work at is just one school where they still reign supreme.

nicole pastry

Gail’s Pastries chef Nicole rolling gluten-free pastry

One could blame the adults for not supervising their children adequately, or for not steering them in the right direction from an early enough age so that they make good independent choices when older. But surely junk food should not be thrust into our faces at every turn? Even supposedly responsible adults have weaknesses and it seems unbelievable that the people working for these vast corporations should be more concerned about their profits than on the long-term effects of capitalising on our children’s pester power, or on our poorly-directed impulses and stressed moods. Strategically-placed displays of junk food at the ends of key supermarket aisles or at the checkout are just as reprehensible. So why not make our choices easier? I get that vending machine companies just want to make money (we all do, right?). But if people are really hungry or thirsty, then they will still eat and drink – so why not fill the machines with healthier temptations?

Students at University College Birmingham have been trying to innovate in just this regard by joining forces with the Automatic Vending Association (AVA) as part of a special project to design new healthy vending machine snacks. The students’ ideas included Caulipockets (a gluten-free pasty-style snack with pastry made from cauliflower), AM 2 PM (a snack pack containing one sweet and one savoury mini-snack – one for the morning and one for the afternoon) and Noodlelicious (a low-calorie hot snack made with rice noodles, including a vegetarian option). The winner of the project, Gail Pastries, will have its wheat-free pastries sold in AVA vending machines – proving that if the big boys of the vending machine world are on board, then this can be done.

So what would I like to see in my new fantasy healthy vending machines? Apart from the excellent inventions from the students at UCB, here’s a handy list:

  • Water (fizzy and still…Definitely no flavoured waters allowed)
  • Smoothies and fruit juices
  • Tea (no milk, no sugar…I can’t believe a machine could screw up a tea bag and some hot water, so this can only go well)
  • Milk and soy milk (I don’t personally like it, but recognise it’s a healthy drink)
  • Raw food bars. The good ones are pressed, not baked, and don’t add sugar. I’m a NAKD bar fan myself.
  • Flapjacks. The oats keep you full, the fruit can be a cheeky one of your five-a-day, and they don’t have to be chock-full of sugar and fat. Honey or fructose can be used to sweeten instead, with a healthy oil being used as the ‘glue’ to keep it together.
  • Nuts. The best ones for your health are pistachios, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and Brazil nuts.
  • Dried fruits. The possibilities are pretty much endless, but my favourites are apple, mango, cherry, blueberry, raisin and pear.
  • Vegetable or bean chips. A great alternative to crisps, these are never going to be the same as eating fresh veg, but are healthier than potato crisps while still providing that satisfying crunch. I like Tyrells, but there are MANY brands out there. Lighter crisps, such as those by Popchips and TooGood, could also be used.
  • Plain popcorn. It’s what you put on it that makes it unhealthy. If flavourings are necessary, then vending machines could sell popcorn flavoured with chilli/paprika (for a savoury version) or an artificial sweetener, using low-fat cooking oil or similar to make the flavourings stick.
  • Rice cakes…preferably not the ones covered in caramel. The ones that come with a very thin layer of dark chocolate on one side could be OK though.

The best part is that in the meantime, it’s easy enough to prepare many of these snacks at home, or to buy them in places that are less expensive than vending machines – so voting with your feet is an option. Meanwhile, with baguettes being sold out of vending machines in France, fries out of Belgian machines, and pizza out of American machines, there’s scope worldwide too for this healthy vending revolution to occur. Now back to school for the new academic year to see if I can wean our little monsters off the vending machines in our school cafeteria…