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Taking the Garbage Out



Jennifer Barber isn’t likely to be intimidated by the hurdles she faces when helping to create a healthier Arizona. After all, she’s already beat cancer.
Eight times. Yes, you read that right.
So when it comes to convincing local cities and businesses to replace the chips and candy in their vending machines with healthier options, she’s optimistic change can happen.
Barber is co-founder and executive director of Arizona in ACTION, a nonprofit that works with local businesses, schools, governments and citizens to create healthier environments. For Barber, a former television news broadcaster turned local health advocate, the work is personal.
Now cancer-free, Barber is focused on motivating others to get healthier, including in schools and the workplace. Arizona in ACTION’s latest effort is its “Vending Challenge,” which asks local organizations to get rid of the junk food in their vending machines. Barber tells The Inside Track the goal is to create an environment where “no matter where you are you can find at least one healthy snack.”
“It’s impossible to expect people to wipe out all the bad stuff. But, if you have a Coke, skip the fries. If you like pizza, eat a piece but not the whole pie,” she says. “Giving consumers healthier options in vending machines at least gives consumers the option to make a healthy choice.”

The logistics of the Vending Challenge are simple. Participants take before photos of their vending machines, then swap out the junk food and sugary drinks with healthy treats and water. Afterward, participants take another photo and send the pictures to Arizona in ACTION. The challenge-takers will be honored during ACTION’s health and fitness fair on Nov. 5.
“Companies that make the change to healthier vending will likely attract a broader range of customers and it is one way to help employers control high health care costs,” says dietitian Deborah Robinson, who works for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “Making the switch to healthier vending is one of the least expensive ways to improve the nutrition environment.”
Arizona in ACTION launched in 2008 as Goodyear in ACTION, created after Barber and some of her fellow residents helped the Arizona city nab a coveted All-America City award from the National Civic League. Inspired by the league’s mission to do “good things community-wide,” Barber and her colleagues founded ACTION, which stands for “Active Citizens Together Improving Our Neighborhoods.”
One of the new organization’s main goals was to reverse childhood obesity in Goodyear. Since its launch, ACTION has held several events designed to educate the public and get people active, and is even partnering with the Cincinnati Reds, who hold their spring training in Goodyear.
ACTION quickly gained notice among officials in nearby cities, and eventually changed its name to reflect its work throughout the state.
Barber is optimistic her fellow Arizonians can give their vending machines a makeover, since it happened in Goodyear after she met with the director of the city’s park and recreation department. 
“I said to him, “What do you think the odds are that you can pull the sugary stuff out?’” Barber recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’”
But it’s not all about taking items out. It’s also important to consider what goes back in.
Many organizations that give vending machines a makeover first create nutrition criteria for what can be sold, Robinson says. Often, they decide that at least 50 percent of items will be low in saturated fat, sugar, sodium, and calories. Baked chips, whole grain crackers, dried fruit, nuts and seeds, and many nutrition bars typically fit this criteria, as does bottled water, low-fat or non-fat milk and diet drinks, she adds.
Better nutrition options can lead to bigger profits, if organizations and vendors take the time to test new products, promote them, price them the same or less as unhealthy ones and strategically arrange them in the machine.
“Some companies who have made the switch actually report an increase in sales,” Robinson explains. “It’s really about working with the vending operators and consumers.”