Photo courtesy of delish.com
By Fleming Smith
Vending machines on campus typically feature sodas, chips, and candy, but several Sewanee psychology classes are encouraging the administration to offer healthier-choice vending machines in order to help students eat healthier and reduce stress.
After administering two surveys, the students feel that their research indicates that students both want and need vending machines where they can buy a cheap but more energizing food or beverage. Out of 269 student survey participants, 92.8 percent supported the installation of healthier vending machines on campus.
“It started in the spring semester of 2016. At the time, I was teaching a class, a research seminar, in psychology. I was working with psychology seniors for the most part, and we were really looking at the relationship between nutrition and human development. One of the presentations that I thought was really impactful was a presentation about vending machines in school settings,” explained psychology professor Helen Bateman.
The student’s research found that unhealthy vending machines could contribute to poor eating habits and therefore are also a factor in the obesity epidemic currently affecting children in the United States. However, many schools began to introduce alternative, healthy vending machines to combat these ill effects.
“We started asking ourselves: we’re talking about students in schools, and it’s great that there’s such a movement, but what about our own campus? So the students in the class generated this question: do we have any healthy vending machine options on campus? And they all looked at each other and said, no, we don’t,” Bateman said. The entire class chose healthy vending machines as their project for the semester.
In terms of healthier options, Bateman mentioned replacing regular candy bars with healthier alternatives; increasing the availability of water and reducing sugary beverages; and, at a more challenging level, offering yogurt or even sandwiches and salads.
The class began with a survey asking Sewanee students if they believed unhealthy vending machines were a problem. They also collected data on how much students used vending machines and for what reasons. The anonymous survey included 32 items and garnered a little more than 100 responses.
“We did some preliminary analysis, and we did see a very strong interest in replacing the existing vending machines we had on campus with at least healthier option vending machines,” Bateman commented. “We were very encouraged by this, so we felt there’s something here to continue. On the other hand, we felt that there were some weaknesses in our study.”
Bateman and her class believed that although the sample size was relatively substantial, it was not representative of the student body. Like many surveys, they also had a significantly lower number of male participants. The next class to take the project, in fall of 2016, repeated the survey with entirely new participants and reframed the survey to ask if students wanted alternative vending machines added rather than simply replacing the existing machines.
“We increased our size, literally doubled it. We felt it was a representative sample. We did analysis and found that, indeed, the vast majority of students wanted to have healthier choices. So there was an overwhelming support of students,” said Bateman. More than 90 percent of students surveyed believed adding healthier vending machines was important to them and would increase their use of vending machines.
The third class in the project, the current Adolescent Psychology class, divided into three groups to continue collecting data as well as reach out to the community to see if their project could become a reality. A community action group introduced the project to professors and students outside the class, launching an event on December 6.
At the event, approximately 20 students and professors gathered in the Social Lodge to hear a few of the students present on their findings. Afterwards, while eating a catered healthy meal from Mountain Goat Market, the students discussed the project with attendees and answered questions in a relaxed setting.
“I believe that this project is an important step to making Sewanee a healthier campus. The results of the survey show that many students feel they do not have access to healthy food once the dining hall and cafes close,” Susie Oliver (C’19) explained.
“They also report feeling like they need access to healthy options after studying late into the night,” she commented. “Feeling fatigued can lead students to impulsively go for unhealthy snacks when they do not see another option available.” The class’s research discovered that students in sororities and varsity athletes most struggle with disordered eating patterns.
As part of the community action group in the class, Oliver campaigns to gain more support for their initiative among the administration and students outside the class. “We are currently making a video that will showcase our findings and advertise what we are advocating for. Our first goal is to get healthy-choices vending machines on our campus, and then to take the research nationally. Hopefully more colleges and even high schools will see the need for healthy-choices vending machines based off our initiative,” she explained.
Students also reached out to nearby vending machine companies to inquire if they could introduce their healthy vending machines to campus. A current challenge facing the project is that companies even in Nashville have told students that Sewanee is too far away for them to service.
However, Bateman believes that if the University officially reached out to these companies, a more sanctioned approach could yield different results. Another option involves talking with Sewanee’s current vendor about receiving healthier options.
“We are poised to present in Sewanee and also internationally at this point and I’d like publication to ensue from this, so all the students who have participated in this will have the opportunity to participate,” Bateman explained.
As of the end of this semester, Bateman believes that the research has been completed, and now the next step is to focus on speaking with administration about bringing their project into fruition based on the overwhelming support of students surveyed.
“I don’t really foresee any objections,” Bateman commented about talking to the administration about making their project a reality. “In my opinion, how I see this, it’s part of the broader plan we have here, and goal and aspiration that we have as a University to create a healthier campus. We think that our project is going to fit in perfectly with this initiative. It’s something that for some reason has been overlooked, but its time has come.”