Chicago’s park visitors may have to find replacements for peanuts and Cracker Jacks next time they go out to the ball game. As part of its 100% Healthier Snack Vending Initiative, the Windy City is replacing vending machine foods with healthier snacks. Both park staff and park visitors have responded positively to these changes, according to new study by Northwestern University. Average per-machine sales increased from $84 to $371 during the first 15 months of the initiative. “Improving access to more healthful foods through machine-vended snacks is a strategy that has demonstrated success in schools and worksites,” researchers wrote in the report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chicago is home to approximately 2.7 million people and the largest city park system in the United States. Through after-school and summer programs, the Chicago Park District serves almost 200,000 children each year. The vending machine initiative is supported by Chicago’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities project (HKHC). The organization believes parks should be a place to promote wellness outside of school, not just through exercise, but also through healthy eating.
The initiative began in August 2010, when 98 new snack vending machines were placed in indoor field houses throughout the park system. Each machine was required to meet a list of nutritional standards. Among those requirements include snacks that cannot contain more than two servings per package, and must be free of trans fats. No more than 35% of their total weight can be from sugar and sweeteners, but natural fruit juice is allowed. These new snacks include granola bars, baked chips and fruit snacks, in replacement of cookies and candy. All munchies must be priced at $1, as not to allow consumers’ decisions to be affected by cost.
Of the 10 Chicago parks sampled over the course of 15 months, 88% of surveyed patrons and 100% of the interviewed staff reported liking the healthier snacks. Children purchased nearly half of the snacks in this sample.
Chicago is one of the first cities in the country to make this movement to improve park food environments for kids. Over the past few years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new nutritional standards for school lunches for kids. It was the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years. Now, the struggle to keep kids healthy is expanding beyond school cafeterias.