About every other day this past spring, Ruth and John Recchia headed to Roy C. Ketcham in Wappingers Falls and John Jay in Hopewell Junction to restock the vending machines they own at these two high schools.
It was a labor of love, and something they’re looking forward to doing again when school resumes this month. After all, the Recchias are playing their part in a nationwide movement to curb childhood obesity and get American youth into the habit of eating the right foods.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized its new “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards, two years after the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act was passed. The intent of this initiative is to combat some sobering statistics — according to the American Heart Association, the number of children and teenagers who are considered overweight or obese has tripled since 1963. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the percentage of children ages six to 11 who were considered obese jumped from seven percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2010; youngsters ages 12-19 considered obese rose from five to 18 percent during the same time period.
The standards set limits on calories, fat, sugar, and sodium, while encouraging the consumption of dairy, whole grains, protein, fruits, and vegetables. Schools with vending machines have a year to comply with the new rules before they go into effect in 2014.
“The new USDA guidelines for competitive foods will make a huge dent in the 400 billion calories from junk foods our kids consume at school every year,” Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said in a statement. “For the first time in 30 years, we have a robust nutrition framework for the foods and beverages sold in school vending machines, stores, snack bars, and a la carte lines. These strong standards will not only transform the food and beverages offered in schools, they will help create optimal learning environments where our children can thrive.”
The Recchias are a local franchisee of H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending Machines (H.U.M.A.N. is an acronym for “Helping Unite Mankind and Nutrition”). When they refill their vending machines, it isn’t with Twinkies and high-fructose drinks and sugar-laden snacks, but rather with bottled water, Clif Bars, Popchips, Chobani yogurt, and Snyder’s pretzels, among other items.
A registered nurse for 35 years, Ruth Recchia knows the value of a healthy meal.
“When my own children were young, I would pack them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of fruit, some milk, and maybe — maybe — a cookie,” she said. “They always had a healthy lunch.”
She pauses for a moment and laughed.
“Okay, they had the boring lunches,” she said. “But to this day, my children always tell us they appreciated how we taught them so much about how to eat.”
Now it’s a lesson she’s trying to pass on to hundreds of other kids.
“We had been talking with Ketcham and John Jay for about a year and finally got the Healthy Vending Machine into the schools in April,” Ruth said. “Even though we only have a couple of months worth of beta testing, if you will, the fact that we had to go every day or every other day to replenish the machines told us that the kids were buying into this. This definitely dispels the myth that kids won’t buy healthy products.”
H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending Machines are in about 100 markets across the country. Ruth says the most expensive items in the machines at Ketcham and Jay cost $1.75; a percentage of the retail price of each item goes back to the schools.
Many schools, however, make more revenue from deals with big companies such as Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay.
“That’s going to be the challenge for a lot of schools,” Ruth said. “With the markup they can put on a product like Lays, they can make more money. Our markups aren’t that big, and that’s part of the problem. So it will be interesting to see how the new USDA rules mesh with schools trying to do the right thing by the children.”