28 Jun 2021 Guest Blog: Healthier snack provision in vending machines – findings from Leeds City Council trial
In our latest guest blog, we hear from Emma Strachan, Health Improvement Specialist at Leeds City Council, to find out more about their successful healthier vending trail – a key output of adopting the Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight back in 2019.
Why is this important?
The food environment plays a key role in access and availability of healthier food and drink choices. The increasing consumption of out-of-home foods i.e. from cafes, restaurants, convenience stores and vending has been identified as an important factor contributing to the rising levels of obesity.
Vending machines have been highlighted as providing convenient access to food and drinks that are high in energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt. Local Authorities can have a significant role to play in improving the food offered to staff and visitors by making it easier to choose healthier options. Chapter 1 of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan encouraged Local Authorities to adopt the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF), particularly in leisure centre vending machines.
Creating healthier food environments and improving access to healthier food is high on the local agenda. Leeds City Council has adopted the Food Active – Healthy Weight Declaration (HWD) which seeks to demonstrate commitment and responsibility to develop and implement policies which promote healthy weight. This includes the requirement to implement a range of approaches to encourage healthy eating amongst council staff and residents.
What did we do?
The objective of our trial was to increase the availability of healthier options and achieve compliance with the GBSF nutrition-related standards in the Council’s leisure centre vending machines, as well as to investigate possible ways to go beyond this, drawing on portion guidelines within PHE’s sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme, and pending publication of the updated GBSF. The project sought to increase the proportion of healthier options within the vending machines, by altering the availability of products to meet agreed nutrient criteria across 3 phases (baseline, phase 1 and phase 2), taking a stepped approach. The trial was managed by a steering group including Leeds City Council Leisure Services and Public Health, with guidance and support from the provider of the service – the Wilkes Group, academic support from the University of Leeds and scientific nutrition support from Public Health England.
Summary of key findings?
This project has shown that it is feasible to introduce standards to improve the nutrient profile of snack products in vending machines in leisure centres in Leeds without affecting sales.
The key findings comparing the baseline phase with Phase 2 showed:
- No overall reduction in sales
- A significant decrease in overall energy and nutrients vended
Challenges and learning
Local Authorities can experience challenges to increase availability of healthier food and drinks particularly within vending due to concerns about the impact on profits, limiting consumer choice and making changes to business as usual (i.e. working directly with providers).
Learning from the trial has demonstrated:
- The Food Active Healthy Weight Declaration helped to build a case for making changes to the Local Authority food environment. The Declaration was pro-actively used as a driver to review the Council’s Food Procurement policies and open discussions with contract partners to discuss ways to increase availability of healthier food products.
- Working as a partnership across Council services, alongside research partners and provider services helped to consider different perspectives, manage expectations, and conduct research to inform practice.
- Working collaboratively with the contract provider ensured that the changes to the vending machines were feasible and financially viable. Often contracts can be viewed as a barrier to working directly with providers with concerns around contract obligations however this project has demonstrated that providers are open to working together as contract requirements change, particularly where there is a policy drive.
- GBSF offered nationally agreed criteria to improve the offer from baseline to phase 1, other standards and guidelines developed following the GBSF were available to consider a further shift for phase 2. Local Authority catering contracts can help drive demand for food options which meet nutrition guidelines such as the GBSF, but there is also role for food manufacturers to consider the portion size and nutritional composition of foods available as single items for vending companies to source.
Full details of the trial can be accessed from emma.strachan@Leeds.gov.uk
 Health Matters: Addressing the food environment as part of a local whole systems approach to obesity (2019) available online at: https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2019/08/08/health-matters-addressing-the-food-environment-as-part-of-a-local-whole-systems-approach-to-obesity/ (accessed 25/1/2021)
 Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action (2016), HM Government. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/childhood-obesity-a-plan-for-action