Chips and Chocolate: Competing Interests on Cornell’s Campus

Students and staff in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University worked with Cornell Dining and the vending company to improve the nutritional quality of foods in the Division’s vending machine. The paper below outlines the background leading up to these changes, the process undergone to implement these changes, selected results and findings, as well as lessons and challenges learned along the way. The project is still ongoing and Cornell University is now looking to roll out healthier vending items throughout the rest of Cornell’s campus.


The vending machine in Savage Hall, Cornell University’s home to the Division of Nutritional Sciences, has traditionally stocked common vending foods – highly processed candy bars, chips, chocolate, gum and other products of poor nutritional quality.

Next to the snack food vending machine is a beverage machine selling the typical array of soda and juice. It is from these two – the food machine and the beverage machine – that one can buy a quick snack. Students, staff and faculty can bring food and leave it in the refrigerator in the adjacent room but if one wants to purchase something on the spot, they are left with a set of unhealthy food choices. This easily accessible, cheap, unhealthy food created an unhealthy food environment in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

Actions and Outcomes Prior to Changes in the Vending Machine

Graduate students in the Division of Nutritional Sciences decided to take on improving the healthfulness of this food vending machine. It was, more than anything, embarrassing to host visitors, only for them to see this machine as the center piece of our dining area. We began this endeavor, working with Cornell Dining and the vending company, to improve the offerings in this machine.

A vending team consisting of two graduate students and a Senior Extension Associate was formed to spearhead this effort. Once the team was formed, a few crucial events and information gathering sessions occurred. Selected events and outcomes below.

– The vending team conducted research to learn about the vending contract between the Division, Cornell Dining and the vending company. The Division of Nutritional Sciences has a contract with Cornell Dining and Cornell Dining has a contract with a specific vending company.
– The vending team approached Cornell Dining to see whether or not it would be possible to include healthier offerings in the vending machine. Cornell Dining and the vending company agreed that Savage Hall could serve as a pilot program for healthier offerings in vending machines throughout campus.
– Cornell Dining asked the vending team for a set of food standards that could guide the healthier options. The vending team used standards already in place in multiple school districts (and similar to those in the not yet published by the Institute of Medicine’s Nutrition Standards for Food in Schools Report).
– The vending team met to assess products brought forth by the vending company, as possibilities for the updated machine. Cornell Dining and the vending company decided that the entire machine would be healthier options, removing all traditional vending options (with the exception of gum and mints). In addition to healthier options, nutrition facts for each product were posted on the outside of the vending machine.
– The vending team emailed the Division of Nutritional Sciences (faculty, staff and graduate students) soliciting feedback about preferred foods and to increase awareness of project.
– The vending team met with Cornell Dining and the vending company to go over email responses, list of foods presented to the vending team and to determine a timeline for the implementation of healthier foods.
– The vending team provided Cornell Dining and the vending company with a prioritized list of foods (from the initial list they provided to the vending team). Cornell Dining asked the vending team to provide a “wish list” of healthy foods and their respective brands.
– Phase 1 of the project, the healthier food line-up, began at the beginning of the fall semester and lasted until mid-October.

Results: The Product Line-Up for Phase 1 and 2

Phase 1 (August 2007-January 2008)

Foods included: Sun Chips, Smart Food popcorn, baked chips, crackers, pretzels, rice snacks, Oreo Thin Crisps, trail mix, Nutter Butter Bites, peanuts, tuna, fruity snacks, Snackwell’s sandwich cookies, Fig Newtons, granola bars, Nutrigrain bars, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, sugar-free wafers, graham crackers and animal crackers.

These food options remained in place until mid-January, at which time Cornell Dining and the vending company reevaluated the offerings.

Phase 2 (January 2008-March 2008)

Selected products were changed based on availability. The vending company adds “Balanced Choice” labeling.

“Balanced Choice” label affixed to specific foods based on vending company’s supplier. A “green leaf” sticker on a slot in the vending machine indicates a “Balanced Choice” and meets the following nutritional criteria:

  • 7 net grams of fat, or less
  • 260 calories, or less
  • 250 mg of sodium, or less

Phase 2 sales results: For the periods 1/22/07 – 2/15/07 vs. 1/21/08 – 2/15/08, sales transactions were down by 17%, and dollar value of sales were down by 9%. According to Cornell Dining, the machine could not sustain itself with phase 2 sales and product line-up.

Phase 2 sales were compared to vending sales throughout the rest of Cornell and it was determined that the drop in sales might not be due solely to healthier options. Sales also declined for traditional vending machines.

Results: The Survey

The vending team conducted a survey during Phase 2. Thirty individuals completed the survey; 100% of respondents were from within the Division of Nutritional Sciences, 58.6% were graduate students, 6.9% were faculty and 37.9% were staff. The information below represents selected survey responses.

69% of respondents noticed changes in the vending machine. In response to an open- ended question, some changes noticed included:

– Healthier and more hunger-satisfying options – I can now count on finding something I want to eat, at least when it is stocked (which it often isn’t).
– Changes disguised as healthier options but still same old companies with same old corn syrup and allergens.
– Healthier better foods!!
– The tuna fish caught my eye–love it.
– The selection has narrowed somewhat — mostly chips and crisps, mostly high sugar low fat. The high-end entrees are nice though (oatmeal, tuna).
– Nutritional info on the vending machine, 100-cal packs.

29/30 respondents noted additional food or beverage items he/she you would like to see offered in the vending machine. In response to an open-ended question, some desired foods included:

– A trail mix with something sinful in it, ideally bits of chocolate. whole grain crackers (maybe there are some and I just haven’t caught them stocked?). chocolate covered coffee beans (beans are vegetables, right?). reduced fat/salt chex mix. snyder’s honey wheat prezels.
– Organic chocolate.
– More types of nuts and dried fruit varieties.
– CHOCOLATE! Not a lot, nothing crazy — peanut m&m’s or hershey bars…plain good old chocolate.
– Fruit leather.
– Stacys brand pita chips. annies brand cheddar bunnies. fruit leather. small packs of chocolate covered raisins or some other kind of lower fat candy options. any kind of kashi tlc cereal bar or snack chip.
– More chocolate the choices are very bad. Here’s what I think I’m an adult and don’t need someone tell me what I should and shouldn’t eat, I can make the decision myself. I like having healthy choices but bring back the candy. If I’m going to eat bad make it dark chocolate not poptarts.

There were many suggestions for fresh fruit, yogurt, bagels, and other refrigerated items we were unable to stock. There were also suggestions for beverage changes. Our intervention did not alter the beverage selection in any way.

Respondents where then asked the importance of 1) brand, 2) personal preference, 3) health, and 4) price in making purchasing decisions on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being least important and 5 being most important.

34.5% of respondents ranked brand as the least important in making a purchasing decision. Personal preference was ranked highest by 51.7% of respondents. Somewhere in between these two variables were health and price.

Respondents answered an open-ended question that asked about their top three most frequently purchased items. Selected answers are listed below.


Most Frequently Purchased Items Why Purchased Most Frequently
Nut/fruit mix, crackers, granola bars. Satisfy hunger and, in the case of granola bars, also a sweet tooth. not too awful health wise.
Water, baked chips, nuts. Those are the only things I would eat from the vending machine. I don’t like chocolate bars or regular chips.
M&Ms. Need chocolate at work.
Nutrigrain bars, low fat microwave popcorn (when it was available). I don’t really eat potato chips or packages of cookies, so low fat versions of those items aren’t appealing to me. If fruit/veggies/yogurt, etc were available, I’d be buying that instead.
I would buy candy if it was there. Chips. No other choices. Extra comment. I am an adult I don’t need Cornell Dining telling me I can’t have something by not providing it. Currenty I have to walk to another building to get what I want. Takes away from my job and is inconvenient. Please make the vending machines for EVERYONE not just what you THINK I should eat. I can do that myself. Also parents send their kids to us because they are smart and ready to make their own choices. I don’t think we should police what they eat, after all we aren’t their parents.

Choices yes but no choices no.

Dairy sandwich (or closest alternative). Because I need energy (and food) to be able to study at school, with least time spent in going to and coming back from home.
Pretzels (any kind); granola bar (crunchy); popcorn. Low in fat, sustaining, nice snacks.
Nuts, popcorn, trail mix. They are the least processed and the ones that will not compromise me in terms of allergies.
Trail mix. Only recognizable ‘whole’ food available.
Natural nut mix, baked Lays. They make me feel better rather than worse after I eat them. They do not have trans fats or too much sugar.
Fruit chips fruit and nut trail mix. They are cheap and healthy.
Water, diet soda. No cal.
Strawberry yogurt bars. I love the taste. Cheap.
Mixed nuts, popcorn, pretzels. I like them.
Popcorn (much prefer the low fat version when it is in the machine), Coke, Baked Lays Potato Chips. Popcorn can be shared. Coke tastes yummy.
Peanuts, wheat thins, tuna and crackers. They taste good and are reasonably healthy.
Tuna, chips (baked lays), granola bars (crunchy quaker– not gooey kind). Dessert for lunch late afternoon snack; chocolate needs no explanation.
Popcorn; pretzels; granola bars. Volume of food; fat content; satiety.

Results: Product Line-Up for Phase 3

Phase 3, March-May 2008

The vending company reinstated some of the traditional snack items, and included more chocolate and fruit (dried or as chips). More chocolate and fruit were a reflection of the survey results.

More specifically, Phase 3 eliminated the 10 or so worst-selling items from the Phase 2 healthier food line-up. 10 or so high-selling traditional snack items were reintroduced into the machine. 2/3 of the items, then, were healthier items and approximately 1/3 were traditional snack products.

Phase 4, May 2008-Present

Cornell Dining and the vending company are meeting to review the current food line-up in Savage Hall and to implement selected high-selling healthier options in other vending machines around Cornell’s campus.

Challenges, Concerns and Lessons Learned

Defining “Healthy”

Establishing a definition for “healthy” is complex and can take many forms, making it difficult to determine a set of food standards. The vending team confronted tradeoffs and unknowns beyond nutritional quality such as feasibility, taste, and likability. Some of the questions asked included:

– What may be realistic guidelines?
– What guidelines would align with consumer preferences?
– Is it necessary to cater to consumer preferences, or should improved health and well-being be maintained as the ultimate goal?

The vending company decided that the new machine was to include only healthier foods that met a minimum standard. Previous experience with pilot projects have showed that altering only selected foods is not an accurate indication of the potential for healthier food sales. If the entire machine is overhauled, consumers may be more apt to buy these healthier items.

Contractual Obligations

Contractual obligations between the Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell Dining and the vending company constrained the vending team’s ability to source from other healthy vending (see, for example) companies.

Consumer Demand

Because the vending machine is located in a nutrition building it may not be indicative of potential healthier food sales throughout the rest of campus.

Baseline demographic data of those that bought and did not buy food from the vending machine was unknown. This made it difficult to know whether or not the same individuals used the vending machine before and after the implementation of healthier options.

The vending team also confronted internal challenges. After sending an initial email to the entire Division of Nutritional Sciences soliciting feedback about preferred healthy options, staff, faculty and graduate students responded.

Below are selected responses, highlighting the spectrum of consumer demands:

- Thanks for doing this. How about (1) bagels, (2) milk (including skim), (3) yogurt, and (4) fruit (if the quality is good).
– What a wonderful initiative. However, some of us still want need our occasional Snickers/Twix, etc.! Don’t obliterate junk food completely – please.
– Best wishes with the negotiation with vendors.

These responses, ranging from a desire to keep the status quo to encouragement and demand for healthier options, raise a number of questions.

– Should nutritionists, or those working in a nutrition department, eat (or be expected to eat) differently than people in other departments?
– Should selected nutritionists impose these changes on other nutrition and non-nutrition staff working in the building?
– Is it our job to be a role model for other departments? Given the great amount of support for these healthier changes, we may wonder whether there is a stigma attached to eating junk food in the nutrition department.
– Perhaps individuals want the current food offerings but fear being shunned by fellow nutritionists?
– Do nutritionists eat differently elsewhere, in the privacy of their office or home?

Transparency and Availability

The entire list of in-stock and special order foods was never made available to the vending team. Instead, Cornell Dining and the vending company reviewed the vending team’s food standard and product suggestions and approached the vending team with a range of choices, pre-selected from an unidentified master list. The process of selecting foods from this master list of in-stock foods remains unknown.

Although it was clear that Cornell Dining and the vending company were invested in this project, the updated vending machine was severely constrained by the healthier options available. From the food lists the vending team was privy to it was clear that the healthier foods were healthier than traditional vending foods but would still be considered junk food by many health professionals.

This raised additional questions:

– Were there items that were healthier that they had in stock but hadn’t been reviewed by the vending company?
– Does the vending company have a contract with certain brands that limits our ability to get a greater array of healthier foods in the machine?
– If we did have to special order foods, how would it impact the price of products in the vending machine

In order to have even healthier foods, such as whole fruit or milk, the vending company would have to special order them, the machine would require refrigeration and/or the Division would have to work with a different company.

Truck drivers stocking the machine may also influence the availability of healthier options in the machine. Because the vending machine in Savage Hall is different from the rest of Cornell’s campus, the truckers have an added step to ensure what they stock in Savage Hall is indeed what the vending company, Cornell Dining and the vending team has agreed on. This required the truck drivers to set apart Savage Hall foods from the rest of the vending foods. The vending company told us that the drivers may try to “cheat” – that if there was a food that didn’t belong in the machine to notify Cornell Dining. It is easier for the truckers to stock the machine with the same traditional snack foods they use to stock the other machines on campus.

As noted previously, Phase 3 plans do allow these drivers increased flexibility.

A Financial Bottom Line

The vending company is open to stocking healthier items but this is largely because sales may decrease with increased consumer demand for healthier options. Additionally, school wellness policies require healthier options in grade school, forcing companies to make significant changes to their product line-up. The distinct school wellness policies between districts results in a series of fragmented policies and a food industry that can no longer use one standard to determine the specific products available in vending machines. They don’t know what sells, they don’t know which foods may be considered healthier, and importantly, they don’t know how to market themselves. The healthier vending machine in Savage Hall provided an opportunity for this vending company to pilot healthier foods and to ultimately improve their current and future bottom line. The implementation of these school wellness policies, although unfunded, has had a positive impact on vending company buy-in.

Final Thoughts

We all know we are supposed to eat healthfully and exercise regularly. But translating theory into practice involves a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the values at play, the politics of the situation, consumer demand and perhaps most of all, the distinct group of stakeholders involved in the decision-making process.

Mainstream thinking is that nutritionists tend to frame policy decisions around science. We view experts as credible, our science as facts and improving public health as the ultimate goal. If we base our decisions around what science tells us are good and bad foods, we’d likely remove the vending machine altogether. There’s nothing in the machine that even resembles a “health food.” Science tells us, generally, that minimally processed foods are better than processed foods, and that low-salt, low-sugar foods are better than high-salt, high-sugar foods. But beyond this general notion of what’s good and what’s bad, there is much ambiguity and controversy over labeling specific foods as healthy or unhealthy. If we want a healthy machine, should it be filled only with milk? Should it be stocked only with fruit? Or is a mixed fruit and nut granola bar healthy?

One might also expect nutritionists to rebel against traditional snack foods but for years this vending machine has been profitable for the vending company. Although it’s the norm for vending machines to contain high fat, high sodium and highly processed products, we debate whether or not this is acceptable for nutritionists. One questions whether or not, as nutritionists, we should behave differently, desire different foods, and serve as role models for the standards we teach.

We again ask ourselves what it means to be part of the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Do we have a responsibility to be healthy? How do we, and should we, be responsible for changing the set of choices available to individuals? If we create a healthier vending machine, will the consumer base change? Will those who want junk food walk over the next building to buy the traditional unhealthy food offerings? There are no simple answers and no one opinion, even within the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Perhaps most of all, we ask ourselves, is “better-for-you” good enough?

At the end of the day it comes down to who determines our set of choices. The vending team is not trying to taking away choice, but is instead implementing a new set of choices. We are trained to believe choice is set by food companies. If the vending team’s bottom line is public health, and the vending company’s bottom line is dollar signs, who should have the final say? Someone has to set the choices – it’s just a matter of who, and how.

This research was conducted as part of Alexandra Lewin’s doctoral research. The author would like to thank Jennifer Wilkins (Senior Extension Associate, Cornell University), Marion Nestle (Professor, New York University) and Sue Wernimont (graduate student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences) for their contributions and help with this project.

*This research was exempt from human subjects.


Photo Credits:
1. trp0
2. programwitch