As associate chief endocrinologist at , Dr. Larry Merkle witnesses firsthand the national obesity epidemic in his patients and their resulting health problems. So why, he wondered, did the hospital's vending machines offer snacks loaded with sugar, trans fats and sodium?
That changed recently when Lehigh Valley Health Network installed new high tech vending machines at its three hospitals that offer a dazzling array of more healthful alternatives to standard snacks. Visitors and employees can select food and drinks that are not only lower in sugar, fat and sodium, they can find vegan, organic, kosher, gluten-free and locally sourced choices.
What's more, consumers can can click on a special electronic touch screen to view the complete nutrition information for each item.
“That’s the coolest thing about this machine,” said Kimberly Procaccino, clinical nutrition director at Lehigh Valley Health Network.
The company's venture in this new breed of vending machine comes at a time when the nation's snack foods in schools and institutions are under closer scrutiny as the country battles rising obesity rates. Pennsylvania was recently ranked the 19th fattest state in the country, with 64.7 percent residents obese or overweight, in a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 201," released July 7.
Pennsylvania has now joined a list of mostly southern states in the so-called "diabetes belt," the report said.
In choosing what to stock in the new vending machines, Procaccino said the foods and drinks had to meet certain standards and contain:
- 250 calories or less
- 350 milligrams of sodium or less
- no trans fats
- 100% fruit and vegetable juice with no added sugar
- low fat milk in coffee drinks
The vending machines accept cash and credit cards.
The network's hospital cafeterias have long featured wholesome food items, Procaccino said, but the new snack machines are part of a pilot project in its Wellness University, a program that helps employees and their families lead healthier lives in the workplace and at home.
Procaccino said the new vending machines are also a green energy alternative because they feature efficient LED lighting, motion sensor dimmers and dual temperature zones.
“We’re trying to be socially responsible with regard to the carbon footprint,” she said. “The machines have a tier 2 energy star rating, the highest energy efficiency in the industry at a 40% annual cost savings.”
Still want your sodas, chips and candy bars? Procaccino said there are plenty of traditional snack and soda machines available at their hospitals and fitness centers. They also have vending machines that offer 80 percent traditional and 20 percent healthful selections that are called Balanced Choice and identified with a green leaf logo.
Procaccino said the only downside is the healthier items are often more expensive.
Surveys will be sent out this summer to gauge how successful the new choices are. The results will determine if they will offer only healthful choices or a mix.
Locations of Lehigh Valley Health Network's new 2bU vending machines:
- second floor walkway of the Jaindl Family Pavilion at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Salisbury Township.
- next to the first-floor elevator at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Muhlenberg in Bethlehem Township.
- next to the red elevator at Lehigh Valley Hospital-17th Street in Allentown.
- lobby of Lehigh Valley Health Network's office on Mack Boulevard, Allentown.
- Healthy You Fitness Centers at the Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest's 1243 building, LVH-Muhlenberg and LVHN's Mack building.