Jim Beck was excited when his family’s new business, Fresh Healthy Vending, got its first complaint.

In May the Becks had installed their first vending machines at Montana State University, selling snacks and drinks with no trans fats, no preservatives and less salt and sugars.

They didn’t expect much business during the summer when few classes are held. So it was a surprise when they got an email urging they restock, saying, “Your vending machine is empty — and we love it!”

“We’re trying to be the healthy food that comes to you,” Ellen Beck said, adding it’s nice to offer “an alternative to traditional junk foods.”

The great American vending machine is getting a makeover, in the wake of alarming national reports that more Americans are eating themselves into obesity.

Congress has passed new laws setting nutritional standards for all food sold in schools, including vending machines, and requiring vending machine operators with 20 or more locations to provide calorie counts for consumers.

Seeing an opportunity, new startup businesses have sprouted, promising vending machines selling healthier foods. In California, Fresh Healthy Vending started in San Diego and HUMAN Healthy Vending launched in Los Angeles. Now both are spreading their franchises to Montana and Bozeman.

The Becks, who signed on with Fresh Healthy Vending, stressed their snacks may be more expensive — snack prices range from $1 for yogurt bars to $2.25 for an organic energy drink — but they’re healthier.

There are no trans fats in their Kettle Potato Chips. There are zero calories, no high-fructose corn syrup and no artificial coloring and preservatives in their Zevia All-Natural Cola and Orange Soda. There’s no cholesterol in their Back to Nature Mini Chocolate Chunk Cookies.

But are the new snacks really healthy?

After all, one bag of Kettle chips still has 300 calories (the portion size lists 150 calories for half a bag, but how many people can stop at half a bag?). That’s the same as the 300 calories in a bag of regular potato chips. Unless you’re working out, an extra 300 calories a day is still liable to make you fatter.

“You have to be a smart consumer and read the labels,” said Katie Bark, a nutrition educator based at MSU.

Bark was delighted when told the MSU campus now has three Fresh Healthy Vending machines.

“Any fruits or vegetables? Any string cheese?” Bark asked. “From my standpoint, when you look at what kids’ diets are missing, it’s fruits and vegetables and calcium.”

So far at least, the new snack machines aren’t selling apples and oranges.

The new federal My Plate nutrition guidelines stress that half of what Americans eat every day should be fruits and vegetables. Bark said she’d love to see things like almonds and fresh or dried fruits in the machines.

Still, choosing the Steaz Iced Tea with 80 calories per 16 oz. can is better than picking a Pepsi or Coke with twice as many calories.

“If you’re going to drink this instead of a soft drink, this would be better, but the best choice might be cold refreshing water,” Bark said. “It’s a great step in the right direction, but you have to read the labels.”

National food activist Marion Nestle has voiced skepticism about the idea of healthier vending. “It depends on how you define healthy,” Nestle said. “If you define healthy as slightly better for you than junk food, they’re doing a really good job.”

SCHOOLS ON BANDWAGON

This fall, Bozeman High School will get three of the new healthier vending machines, and Chief Joseph Middle School will get one.

“Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s what the kids are asking for,” said Bob Burrows, support services director for the Bozeman schools. The Bozeman School District reviewed three competing proposals and chose to purchase vending machines from HUMAN Healthy Vending, said Steve Johnson, assistant superintendent for business.

The district’s food service, which operates like a self-sustaining business without local tax support, will purchase the machines and keep 100 percent of the profits, rather than lease machines or take a percentage of others’ revenue. That’s expected to provide the greatest long-term benefit to the district, Johnson wrote.

The machines are expected to pay for themselves in about two years, Burrows said.

The new law passed by Congress gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority over all foods served on school campuses and limits calories, salt and fat, Burrows said.

A year from now, school vending machines will no longer be able to sell candy bars, he said.

Bozeman schools banned carbonated beverages during school hours several years ago because of concerns about kids’ health and obesity trends. The Pepsi machines on campus now sell fruit drinks, energy drinks and the like. The exception is that sodas can be sold after school at concessions during sports events.

Exactly which snacks will be sold in the new vending machines hasn’t yet been decided, Burrows said. He will leave it up to his dietician, Sherri Pearson, assistant food services manager, to pick healthy snacks.

“This is something that’s very popular with Bozeman High School students,” Burrows said. “They are very aware of what’s good for them.”

TAKING OFF

When seeking the advice of taste testers, the Becks turn to their three kids, who attend Chief Joseph Middle School, Bozeman High and MSU.

“Kids love the spritzers, milk, Kettle chips, Pirate Booty,” Jim Beck said.

Adults are also enthusiastic when they find there’s an alternative to vending machine junk food. Beck said they were contacted by David Smith, former Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce director, and asked to put their Fresh Healthy Vending machines in the Helena Family YMCA.

So far the Becks have 15 machines. In addition to three at MSU, they have two at Gallatin Field Airport, and one at Belgrade Middle School, Park High School in Livingston, and the YMCA in Butte. In Helena, their machines are in the College of Technology, Broadwater Athletic Club, Capital High School and St. Peter’s Hospital, which has three.

A Billings man opened Montana’s first Fresh Healthy Vending franchise a few months before the Becks but has fewer machines. Burrows said a Livingston man is starting a HUMAN Healthy Vending franchise.

The new vending machines themselves are a high-tech improvement over traditional machines. They take credit and debit cards. They send out daily wireless sales reports to monitor what’s popular and when stocks are running low. Because the snacks don’t have preservatives, they keep temperatures at 41 degrees in the refrigerated section, Jim Beck said. The machines are also an investment, about $11,000 each.

To entice schools, they offer a 15 percent monthly commission and a one-time $250 grant.

When the Becks started three months ago, Fresh Healthy Vending was a gamble, an idea they had spotted on the Internet. Now they’re seeing a steady increase in business and feel relieved it’s going to work.

“We grabbed it and we’re glad we did,” Beck said. “We feel it’s the beginning of a trend.”

“I think it’s a fun and exciting venture for us,” Ellen Beck said. “I think it’s going to take off.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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