By Tina Dirmann

staff writer for BCBS of Louisiana Foundation

Concession stand at the Ouachita Parish Courthouse. Photo Credit: The News Star

Nearly a month into 2014 and you know what that means…. New Year’s resolutions already feel like a burden. Especially that annual resolution: eat more fruits and veggies, less junk.

Sticking to that resolve gets oh-so much tougher once back in work mode, when everyone’s spending more hours at the office, grabbing whatever convenience munchies are within reach. Ever notice how that vending machine down the hall rarely offers steamed broccoli stalks and lightly grilled salmon? Sigh… So we hit the chocolate bar button once again. Oh yes, we’ve all been there.

That’s why we want to applaud our Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grantee, Ouachita Well (awarded a $1 million foundation grant in 2012), for their vending machine makeover campaign. Actually, the push extends even beyond vending machines, to parish concession stands and even after school snacks the YMCA provides to 14 elementary schools throughout the region. As part of the campaign, Ouachita Well’s Pamela Barton tells us that her group wants 25-60% of all snack options to meet the CDC’s national nutritional guidelines (which limits sodium, sugar and preservative consumption). Specifically, no more than 10 grams of sugar per 8 ounce portion of any food item. No more than 200 milligrams of sodium per packaged product. No more than 200 calories per portion (except nuts). Beverages must include water, low-fat milk and 100% fruit or vegetable juice. And oh yeah (we love this part), those healthier items have to be sold for the same price or less as the nearby sweeter, junkier stuff.

That means traditional vending machine fare — Snickers bars and Dorito bags alone — will no longer make the cut.

“If we’re going to make a dent in the obesity levels in Louisiana, then we have to start by doing these little things, like giving people the option to make the right decision,” Barton said. “Providing healthy options in vending machines and concession stands at least gives people a chance to make a better decision than they did before. It’s a tough change, but it can happen.”

So far, the Ouachita Well group is, indeed, making it happen. Last September, the Ouachita Parish Police Jury (which oversees all fire stations, juvenile and adult correctional facilities, libraries and administration buildings in the parish) passed an ordinance requiring that at least 25% of their vending machines and concessions offer healthy options.

“We actually did have a little opposition from people when they heard we were making this change,” Police Juror Pat Moore told us. “People in the community said, ‘You’re taking away our rights!’ But, by adding healthy options, we’re actually giving people more choices. It’s still up to them to decide what they buy.”
Which was another issue, Barton said — fear from those who make a living or earn the profit from concession/vending sales that granola bars will sell just as well as Snicker bars. People just won’t buy them.

“They told us, ‘We can’t sell this stuff. We can’t make money,’ ” Barton said. “But we’re trying to show them proof that yes, you can make money off of this. And we hope the healthy concessions we just started selling at the Ouachita Courthouse will give us the data to back that up.”

Recently, Ouachita Well funded the purchase of healthy options to sell at the local courthouse concession stand — replacing some of the sugary packaged cinnamon rolls and donuts with fruits, yogurt and granola bars. The plan is to track those sales and, in the end, have concrete proof that healthy food sells, too!

“In fact, I was standing at the concession stand one day, bringing in a shipment of food, when a lady walked up and was just really excited about all the new options,” Barton said. “She said, ‘What’s going on? What’s with all the new foods?’ She was told, you know, it’s part of the Ouachita Well program, to try healthier options, and she loved it. She was really excited.”

By March, more buildings throughout the parish should start seeing vending machine tweaks, Moore said. Ouachita Well also has commitments for change from the cities of Monroe and West Monroe. Ronita Ross, the new CEO for the YMCA of Northeast Louisiana, said they are also now adhering to the CDC nutritional guidelines for all of their after school program sites, as well as encouraging parents to pack healthier lunches and snacks for their children.

“We know first hand,” Ross said, “that healthy living is a lifestyle, and this is our attempt to introduce the youth within our scope of reach to healthy eating habits.”

A healthier vending machine here… A less junk-foodie concession stand there… It may seem like small moves. But they’re all baby steps in this larger journey toward a healthier Louisiana.

“It’s part of a bigger cultural change taking place,” Barton said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, we know that. But if you told me two years ago Ouachita Parish would outlaw smoking in restaurants, I would have told you it would never happen. But it did happen. And I believe that’s been a springboard for other healthier changes in our parish. Same thing here. I see this as a springboard for other changes to come. And I’m grateful for that.”