News: Local

Posted on Apr 14, 2016

Goal IV Case Study: Alexandria, Virginia

The city of Alexandria, Virginia, population 148,892, has earned a gold medal for its work on Goal IV: Model Food Service of Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties (LMCTC), a key part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative. In 2014, Alexandria adopted and implemented a healthy vending policy to promote nutrition and to encourage city employees, residents, and visitors to make healthy snack choices.

Goal IV: Model Food Service

To improve access to healthy, affordable foods, local elected officials commit to implementing healthy and sustainable food service guidelines that are aligned with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in all municipally- or county-owned or operated venues that offer or sell food/beverages.

Developing a Healthy Vending Policy

In connection with the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network, the Alexandria Health Department (AHD) began the process of creating a healthy vending policy in early 2011. To start, AHD formed an interdepartmental Healthy Vending Machine (HVM) Committee, pulling together key stakeholders from city departments, including human resources, general services, police, sheriff, transportation, community and human services, parks and recreation departments as well as the public library system. The formation of the HVM Committee made the transition to healthy vending a city government-wide effort.

At the outset AHD provided to the HVM Committee some public health perspectives: environment drives behavior; obesity is a public health problem; and it is the entire City government’s responsibility to be a leader in public health matters. AHD provided the Committee with the environmental scan of snack offerings: less than 10% of snack varieties were healthy and the average machine contained fewer than four healthy snacks. The HVM Committee decided to obtain input from city employees about a healthy vending policy.  AHD and the HVM committee developed a survey which was administered to city employees in 2012. More than 600 employees took the survey and results indicated that 82% supported healthy vending in Alexandria.

Based on the survey results, AHD and the HVM Committee moved forward to develop the policy. The first step was to decide what qualified snacks as “healthy.” Initially, AHD began the process of developing local snack standards. In 2013, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched their “Smart Snacks in Schools” nutrition standards. AHD and the HVM Committee decided to align the city’s standards with the USDA’s definition of healthy snacks and adopted the USDA “Smart Snacks” standards.

In creating the policy, AHD and the HVM Committee decided to go with 100 percent healthy vending, meaning that all food products in the vending machine were required to meet the USDA’s “Smart Snacks” nutrition standards. By changing the vending policy, Alexandria did not mandate what city employees can eat; the policy simply requires that all snack choices in vending machines in city buildings be healthy. Alexandria’s city manager signed the policy in fall 2014.

Working with Vendors

After the policy was approved, AHD began the implementation process. First, AHD put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to find a new vendor to supply snacks and beverages to vending machines in city-owned buildings.

The process of identifying who the current vendors were and when their contracts were set to expire was challenging because there was not a single point of contact responsible for monitoring vendors, and many had been supplying the city of Alexandria for years with little oversight. However, in the end, Alexandria consolidated from multiple vendors to a single vendor who supplies both snacks and beverages. This has made communication and negotiations with the vendor easier and more efficient.

In order to make sure that the needs of employees are being met, AHD includes the new vendor in monthly meetings with the HVM Committee. This continued collaboration with the vendor is mutually beneficial—city employees are able to share their concerns, and the vendor can use their feedback to make adjustments and enhance customer satisfaction.

Communicating with Employees

Throughout the process of writing and implementing the healthy vending policy, AHD involved city employees and kept them informed. City employees were able to provide their opinions on healthy vending by answering the survey put forward by AHD and the HVM Committee. Additionally, most city departments have a representative on the HVM Committee who shares employee feedback at monthly committee meetings.  AHD has also kept employees updated regularly using a message board on the city’s internal intranet system, in addition to hanging flyers advertising the adoption of the policy in city-owned facilities.

To promote the policy, AHD held a series of tasting events for employees in the days leading up to the installation of the new vending machines. To make the tasting events possible, the RFP included language requiring the new vendor to accommodate sampling sessions for employees in order to get their input and buy-in.

To reach as many employees as possible, the tasting events were held at buildings with large numbers of city employees, such as city hall, police precincts and the recreation department. Each event was two hours long and gave employees the opportunity to ask questions and sample the snacks that would be in the new vending machines.

AHD is currently developing a survey to gauge employee awareness of the healthy vending policy. Survey results will also provide insight into how the healthy vending policy has affected vending machine usage and if it has led some employees to adopt healthier snack habits.

Lessons Learned in Alexandria

AHD staff note that one of the most important aspects of developing a healthy vending policy was communication with city employees. A critical part of this process was providing employees with opportunities to provide input and feedback. Keeping those who would be affected by the policy informed throughout the process made for a smoother transition when the time came to implement the policy in Alexandria.

More broadly, it is important that a city or county make healthy vending a priority. To this end, it is helpful for the local health department or a local public health organization to serve as champions of the effort and be involved in every step of policy development.

Finally, AHD staff emphasize that it is important to be patient with the process. It takes time to develop a policy, but even once the policy has been approved, there are important logistics to consider. For example, when switching vendors, a city needs to plan time to remove old vending machines and replace them with new ones. Cities should also allow time to obtain proper permits, as some states restrict what types of snacks and beverages can go into vending machines.

Though the process of creating a healthy vending policy can be challenging, in the end, promoting healthy choices can have a positive impact on the lives of city employees and set a good example for both residents and other communities.