Removing junk food from vending machines has been a financial debacle for Seattle's schools, which have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits earmarked for student activities, but the city's parks department has watched its revenue rise since it pulled cookies, chips and sodas from its vending machines and concession stands.
As first reported this week by the Seattle Times, Seattle high schools collected $214,000 from vending machine sales in 2001, three years before the school board enacted a tough ban on unhealthy snacks. This year, they've made $17,000. According to the Times, many schools have responded to the shortfall by eliminating extracurricular programs and charging students to join sports teams, which relied on the funds for uniforms and buses.
The Parks and Recreation Department began phasing out sugary snacks in 2009, completing the process in 2010. This year, the department put up its best sales numbers since 2006.
In 2008, when the transition to healthy snacks was still being discussed, the department earned $34,795 from its vending machines. Revenue dropped slightly the following year, but has since been on an upward trajectory: The revenue total for 2011 was $40,544.
While the revenue increase can be partly attributed to the retention of a new management company in 2010, the department had braced for a revenue reduction after adopting guidelines similar to those implemented in Seattle schools. Parks staffers aren't sure how to explain the strategy's success, but have formulated three theories.
Unlike schools, parks cater to a self-selected audience, spokesperson Joelle Hammerstad says. Community centers typically attract patrons who want to play basketball, volleyball or other sport, and are likely to be attuned to the value of exercise and good nutrition. "These folks, in our view, are the young adults and families that are educated in the benefits of healthy options, so they will buy these items," Hammerstad says.
The department's ongoing "Healthy Parks, Healthy You" initiative - an umbrella for programs including the vending machine makeover - promotes healthy lifestyles, so it's possible park users are responding to the campaign, Hammerstad adds.
Finally, parks may have a location advantage. Unlike schools, which are necessarily situated in busy urban areas, parks and recreation centers are often surrounded by open space. That makes it harder for junk food fans to dart over to a nearby convenience store, as many students on open campuses habitually do. "Some of our vending machines are located in areas where there are minimal options that are close in proximity, so the options are to buy what's there or not at all," Hammerstad says.
But Hammerstad warns it's premature to draw any lessons from the department's revenue report. The city recently approved a new vending contract, and Hammerstad says the department plans to analyze future sales before issuing any "final conclusions."