‘Traffic-Light’ System in Lehman College Vending Machines Points the Way to Healthier Snack Choices

BRONX, N.Y.—There’s something new in the vending machines at Lehman College: healthier snacks and a “traffic light” system for selecting them—green for the healthiest, yellow for those that should be eaten in moderation, and red for the ones highest in fat and calories.

The new system is a project of the CUNY Institute for Health Equity, headquartered at Lehman, and is based on data collected from more than 200 Lehman students. The Institute team worked closely on the initiative with CC Vending, the company that stocks Lehman’s vending machines.

The new labeling system provides basic nutritional data so students can make an informed decision. “We wanted something simple that everyone would recognize easily,” says Nika Lunn, the Institute’s program director. The Institute hopes to introduce the new system, which began this semester, to other CUNY colleges.

Each snack is accompanied by a colored sticker:
• Green: The snack has fewer than 250 calories, fewer than 35 percent of its calories from fat, less than 10 percent saturated fat, zero trans fat, fewer than 300 mg of sodium and fewer than 20 grams of sugar per serving;
• Yellow: The snack meets all of the above criteria except one; or
• Red: The snack fails to meet at least two of the above requirements.

Snacks with a green sticker include Rice Krispies Treats, Fig Newtons and Nature Valley Honey & Oat Bar; snacks labeled with a yellow sticker include Yogurt and Nut Trail mix, Garden Salsa Sun Chips and Toasted Veggie Wheat Thins; and those coded “red”—the least healthy option—include M&Ms, Herr’s BBQ Chips and Snickers bars. “We tried to keep a range of options,” says Lunn.

These changes went into effect at Lehman a month ago and included not only the College’s 14 vending machines but also its 33 beverage machines. The price of a bottle of water stayed put at $1.50, while the cost of a soda or other sugary drink increased from $1.50 to $1.75. As a result of the initiative, water is now outselling soda, and Rice Krispy Treats are the top-selling “green” item, as well as the top-selling snack overall.

“This is all part of our desire to give our students, staff and faculty healthier and more nutritious food options,” says Dr. Marilyn Aguirre-Molina of Lehman’s Health Science faculty, who directs the Institute. “Especially students, who eat on the run as they go from class to class, need better options so they can make better decisions about what foods they eat.”

Three separate teams of interns—all of them pursuing a master’s degree at Lehman in either public health or nutrition—worked on the initiative. The first team examined the contents of the vending machines at Lehman, Hunter and City Colleges; the second team polled 238 Lehman students about their eating habits during last fall’s International Food Day; and the third team tabulated all the data into a final report.

Based on students’ stated preferences and working in partnership with CC Vending, the vending machines were filled with healthier options. CC Vending is now tracking what sells and will stock the machines accordingly. “We took into account not only the price point of various foods but also the taste,” says Rosanna Abrahim, a graduate nutrition student who was part of the research team. “We wanted to offer a wide range of options so students had choices.”

So what was the most popular health food that students asked for? “Oatmeal cookies,” says Abrahim. “We were a little surprised. I didn’t know they were that popular.”

Contact: Joseph Tirella / 718-960-5746