Sometimes the greatest long-term impacts are the result of a single step that becomes the impetus for other changes. Health advocates in Arkansas found that to be true when in 2016 they were able to convince the City of Springfield to implement a healthy vending machine policy in city buildings and on city property.
That success, led to the cities of Fayetteville, Rogers, and Little Rock being approached in 2017 and asked if they would be willing to implement similar policies. Supported by the willingness of Springfield to implement the policy, the health advocates began with conversations with mayors and city managers.
They also engaged employee wellness committees and department managers and even provided employees with a sense of what healthy vending machine offerings would look and taste like by offering taste tests and gift baskets containing the healthy options that would be featured in the vending machines.
To further make the case as to why the vending machines should reflect federal health and sustainability guidelines, they did an assessment of the food and drinks currently offered in the machines. The assessment broke down the nutritional facts surround the existing offerings and showed what items could stay and which ones had to go. The findings were eye-opening for mayors, city managers
and employees alike.
“Our goal was to have mayors or city managers use their executive authority to implement the policy on their own, if possible,” says Matt Henry, community policy manager with the American Heart Association in Arkansas.
Fayetteville was the first to implement the policy, followed quickly by Rogers, whose mayor, according to Henry, was a former police officer who was “floored” by the level of unhealthy products found in the machines in that city’s police and fire departments. They then moved to Little Rock, the state’s largest city, where a previous healthy vending machine initiative had failed. Working with a dozen department directors, doing outreach to city employees and continually providing information and encouragement to the city manager, the city finally agreed to implement the same policy the other Arkansas cities had approved.
Overall, the policies will directly or indirectly impact more than 300,000 Arkansas residents, including employees on the lower end of the economic spectrum, many of whom use vending machines as a source of lunch. The momentum that started in Springdale and then spread to Little Rock and other cities in Arkansas, will likely
spread further—not only in Arkansas, but the region and even nationally.
This is an important step in the right direction by giving people living in one of the unhealthiest states in the nation an opportunity to be healthier says Henry. “Obviously we want other cities to follow. But the point is to have a nationwide health impact and this is Arkansas’ part in helping that effort.”