Health and park officials want more nutritious snacks at 49 park and rec centers in Minneapolis.
A novel attempt in some Minneapolis park and recreation centers has taken aim at injecting healthier notions into active, sweaty kids at an unusual spot:
The vending machine.
Alarmed that vending machine snacks are too high in fat, calories, sodium and sugar, city health and park officials tried an experiment last year. They asked vendors at 10 park centers to stock machines with 75 percent healthy snacks for six months to see what would happen.
Out went some Big Texas Cinnamon Rolls, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, candy bars and potato chips. In went fat-free pretzels, granola bars, breakfast bars, nuts, dried fruit, rice cakes and baked chips.
The results? At four park centers where park officials tracked machine revenues closely, there wasn't much change. In other machines not tracked by the city, vendors said sales were up or down slightly, and in one case down dramatically.
"It was really about making sure that healthy options are available in places where kids hang out," said Sarah Reuben Meillier, project specialist with the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support.
Similar efforts have been made at parks in Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, New York and Kansas City. School systems have wellness policies that include vending machines, including Minneapolis public schools, Meillier said.
Junk food vs. fitness
Waite Park in northeast Minneapolis was one of 10 centers that volunteered for the experiment. Larry Umphrey, recreation supervisor there until November, said he got no major complaints about the switch.
"It goes hand-in-hand with our active recreational activities," Umphrey said. "If kids are out there playing basketball for three or four hours and then they eat six bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos and four big bottles of soda pop, it kind of cancels things out."
Umphrey said only one of 28 choices in the Waite Park vending machine was healthy when the program began last summer. That rose to 75 percent until January, he said, and has since settled back to about a 50-50 split.
What constitutes "healthy" can be difficult to determine.
Sara Ackmann, recreation programming and facilities manager for Minneapolis parks, said the experiment used federal guidelines for children's snacks. They set limits of no more than 30 percent fat, 10 percent saturated fat, 600 milligrams of sodium, or 35 percent sugar by weight.
Park commissioners last week directed Ackmann and others to develop a city policy on healthy snacks and present a draft version to the board next month. It will apply to rec center programs where snacks are served, she said, whether it's pizza parties for kids or doughnuts for seniors playing cards.
It won't include special events such as art fairs held at parks or concessions at Lake Calhoun and Minnehaha Park.
The park system has 49 recreational centers and offers 6,000 after-school and adult seasonal programs.
Minneapolis park centers choose snack machine vendors with no requirements that a certain percentage of stocked items be healthy.
Gary Wilson is a vendor who serves four centers, including two in the study. He said sales fell 75 percent at North Commons rec center during the pilot project. That's unfortunate, he said, because he donates all the proceeds -- normally $400 per month -- to the park's athletic programs for uniforms, equipment and other needs.
A few healthy snack choices is OK, Wilson said, but officials shouldn't go overboard.
"We're not getting the kids that are really obese, because those aren't the kids that come to the park in the first place," he said. "I don't say all the stuff is the best for them, but they burn it off just in their playing."
Some healthier snacks don't sell out because they tend to be smaller or contain nuts that many kids dislike, he said.
If health and park officials want to attack obesity, he said, they should also focus on soft-drink machines, which are huge sources of sugar and calories.
Of the healthy choices, Wilson found that baked chips and pretzels did well and he'll keep stocking them.
Otherwise, he said, it's back to the more popular items for now: sour cream chips, Skittles, Snickers, Twix and Big Texas Cinnamon Rolls.
"Especially those flamin' hot chips. Kids just buy those like crazy. I can't even eat them."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388