Wendy Mikkelsen of Lloyd Neck was a stay-at-home mom who prided herself on the healthy eating habits she had instilled in her four children. As a triathlete, she knows the importance of a balanced diet and the added benefits of including organic and natural foods. So when she picked up her older son from football practice and he got into the car eating a Danish, it really struck a nerve with Wendy.
“Here I am giving him healthy foods [at home] and they’re selling this junk food in school,” she says.
As a member of the local PTA, Wendy presumed that she would know what kinds of food would be served in the cafeteria. She didn’t.
“This doesn’t make sense that [junk food] is sold in schools. I don’t know how I missed that.” Wendy thought, “Maybe I should do something about it.”
After researching what kind of snacks are available for children to purchase in school, Wendy learned that vending machines with organic and healthy foods were nowhere to be found on Long Island. But she did find companies that sold natural and organic snacks for vending machines including fresh fruit, smoothies, yogurt, organic cookies and Pop Tarts made with real fruit, no chemicals and no high-fructose corn syrup.
“I thought, this is a great job [vending] for me, I can do this.” In 2008, Wendy founded My Healthy Thing snack distribution, the only vending company on Long Island providing truly healthy and organic snacks. According to Wendy, every choice from her machines is healthy.
“I designed my own marketing materials and website and the concept just came together,” Wendy says proudly.
Almost anything can be sold out of a vending machine, but the old-fashioned metal monsters we’re used to seeing contain mostly sugar- and carb-laden snacks. Between a Drake’s Apple Pie that is packed with 27 grams of fat and Doritos that are loaded with sodium and MSG, pushing the wrong button can be a diet disaster for a child.
According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), healthy snacking can help control appetite and weight, get metabolism moving and regulate one’s mood. But as children gaze over the rows of brightly colored packages displayed in the vending machine, Wendy wondered, who is regulating what’s in the machine?
Naively, Wendy thought that Long Island schools would jump at the chance to have these new machines in their cafeterias, and armed with her knowledge of the health benefits of fresh, natural food, she began visiting the schools. What she got was a lot of stonewalling by the administrators and dieticians.
“They’re in a tough spot because they need to make money. It’s an interesting dilemma,” Wendy says. Oddly enough, organic vending is more profitable than traditional vending machines through sheer volume, according to Wendy.
“I have been to every school district on Long Island,” Wendy says, and she recounts some of the excuses she received from school dieticians as to why they wouldn’t offer natural foods to their students, including, “I don’t think our students are ready for this.”
“These are the people that are deciding what your child is eating,” she says. One school dietician told Wendy, “We like our junk food!”
“What do you say to that? The food service personnel are responsible [for a child’s food choices] more than their own mothers. Kids come to school at 7 a.m. and eat breakfast and lunch and then they stay after and have a snack,” Wendy says.
“It’s like schools are putting their stamp of approval on Doritos. Kids think it’s okay to eat it if it’s in the vending machine.”
After a lot of legwork, Wendy finally got her first positive response last spring from the Seaford school district, which installed a vending machine. She now has more than thirty machines located in schools, colleges, businesses and hotels.
“I try to go [and refill] when school is in session so I can talk to the kids. I want them to look and see what’s in the machine,” Wendy says. She can remotely monitor each machine’s inventory from her iPhone and computer to see if they need replenishing; some get refilled twice in one day. The machines are energy efficient, made of recycled material, and with her remote inventory system, she doesn’t waste time, gas and energy for unneeded trips. “Cheetos will last for two years [in a vending machine],” Wendy says, cringing.
A variety of fresh food is one of the biggest advantages of an organic vending machine. “You don’t want to open the refrigerator [at home] and see the same thing everyday. I always change the flavors to keep things fresh and different in my machines.”
Wendy is happy to say that she’s now getting calls from people who are hearing about what she’s doing, and she is working with those who understand the organic concept instead of trying to convince people to just try the organic vending machines.
As parents, we’re continually trying to get our kids to eat healthy and guide them to make the right food choices, but it can become impossible if schools are selling junk food. “They are children and we’re making the decision for them. What kind of message are we sending?” Wendy asks. “Call your superintendent and ask for a change. Right now there isn’t one school district on Long Island that is selling all healthy food.”
For more information go to www.myhealthything.com or call 631-421-4060.
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