It’s a daunting task to reform the current food system into one that is more sustainable and just. Where do you begin? Unnecessary agribusiness subsidies, or protecting family farmers, or combating the marketing of over-processed, high-calorie, sugary snack foods?

For Portland State graduate student Amanda Peden, the answer was the school’s ubiquitous snack vending machines. “[We] saw a public health issue right under our noses,” Peden writes in an email. For a school project, Peden collaborated with two Masters of Public Health colleagues to develop a communications plan to bring healthier snacks to Portland State’s vending machines. “Everyone in the PSU community needs access to healthy food. The healthy vending effort is one step in that direction.”

This past summer, Peden saw her class project morph into a “full-blown effort.” An advisory group was formed to identify machines that would increase choices and offer healthier snacks to students. (Full disclosure: I was a member of this group.) The 2bU machines identified for installation provide gluten-free, vegan, and other snacks of smaller portion sizes.

The emphasis on portion size was a priority
. “It’s reasonable to snack,” dietitian Nancy Becker writes in an email, “However, portion sizes must be in line with our energy needs.” As a registered dietitian for Oregon Public Health Institute, Becker helped set standards for healthy vending machines for Portland Parks & Recreation. The goal is to extend these standards to the Portland State campus with the next vending machine contract, and the 2bUs will introduce PSU students to the type of products that will meet the new healthy vending standard.

Gwyn Ashcom, health educator for the PSU Center for Student Health and Counseling.
Gwyn Ashcom, health educator for the PSU Center for Student Health and Counseling.

The 2bU machines are part of PSU’s Healthy Campus Initiative. Gwyn Ashcom is a health educator for the school’s Center for Student Health and Counseling and has taken a leading role in bringing these machines to campus. “From a health promotion perspective, we know we can create behavior change if we improve the environment to make healthy choices easier,” Ashcom writes in an email. “Because they are a quick stop for people, it seemed like [vending machines] were a reasonable place to start when it comes to nutrition-based incentives. By developing nutritional standards for our vending machines on campus, PSU would be the first university in Oregon to adopt a policy like this.”

Three new 2bU machines were set to be installed on the PSU campus in strategic locations during winter break. But, as

The 2bU machine has been popular with students; many items consistently sell out.

 spring break approaches, only one 2bU machine has been installed, in the school’s Student Rec Center. An unexpected roadblock has prevented the installation of the other two machines. As a state-operated facility, PSU’s vending machines are operated by the Oregon Commission for the Blind, and, according to Ashcom, PSU’s vendor is nervous that her revenues will be impacted as the 2bU machines cost more to run and her vendor cut would be smaller. (NN asked the Oregon Commission for the Blind for comment but did not receive a response before publication.)

“But we are adding machines, so I don’t understand what the problem is,” Ashcom says. “The machine in the Rec Center is doing really well and a lot of things are sold out. We’re hoping that when we show her those numbers at the end of this month, she will be receptive to eventually change out the products in her existing vending machines.”

With the installation of the other two 2bU machines currently on hold, the question needs to be asked once again: Is it possible to reform our profit-driven, industrial and unhealthy food system? In this instance, a graduate student recognized an opportunity for healthy change, which inspired a group to make this idea a reality. Partnerships are formed with the university, agreements are made, and plans are confirmed for the installation of healthy vending machines. And then installation is blocked due to revenue concerns.

Hopefully, these roadblocks can be resolved before a cynical conclusion, that it’s pointless to try to reform the current food system, is reached.