A vending machine program that features healthy food products and is backed by Iowa's state health department means such choices are being made available at rest stops along highways, including Interstate 80.

The state's vending machines also contain a new - yet familiar - red/yellow/green "stoplight" design to show customers which foods are considered healthy and which are not.

The Iowa Department of Public Health received a $112,500 grant from the Wellmark Foundation to implement the program, called Nutrition Environment Measures Survey-Vending, or NEMS-V.

There was a trial period for NEMS-V in the autumn, putting about 16 healthy choices in each machine. Most recently, state officials have been developing social media messages to get the word out.

The eight-week trial period was more successful than expected, said Dwain Sundine, the owner of Capitol Vending in Iowa City. His company supplies machines at I-80 rest stops near Tiffin and Wilton and, until recently, Bettendorf.

"If given a good-quality healthy food choice, people will buy it," he said.

The red/yellow/green stoplight design was introduced because it is believed consumers have a difficult time making out food labels, especially behind the glass in a vending machine. The NEMS-V program is a joint project of the Iowa Department of Public Health and Iowa State University, which evaluated the nutritional value of the food and beverage products offered in the machines.

A website, nems-v.com, was developed to explain the program, and it also offers a nutritional calculator to help consumers decide on the best food choices.

So far, so good

So far, the program seems to be working pretty well, state officials say.

"We did see an uptick with people making healthier choices on machines in the Sioux City area," said Susan Klein, a consultant on the program.

The vending machine choices are being expanded in Iowa City and the Des Moines metropolitan area, said Carol Voss, a nutrition coordinator with the Iowans Fit for Life program. Voss, who is with the state health department, said the NEMS-V program is being rolled out slowly as the state builds relationships with vendors.

The state hopes to see the machines contain 30 percent healthy food choices by November, but Sundine said 20 percent is a realistic first step. The trial program showed which of the food choices were popular and which were not.

Items such as kettle corn, caramel rice cakes, baked chips and pita chips are all good sellers, he said. So are graham cracker sticks and beef jerky.

Less popular were a type of Snickers bar and packages of dried cranberries. Sundine said the dried fruit was accepted by some consumers, but it was in a larger package and priced too expensively for most people.

Local vendors

Healthy food choices have been available for about six years in vending machines owned by Valley Vending of Davenport. Stickers indicating that they are healthy choices are placed on the products, and they are grouped on the right side of the machines, said Galen Starkweather, the company's owner.

"You are supposed to eat ‘right,' " he said of the on-purpose product placement.

Having such foods in city- and town-based machines has become a sales tool, he said. Some companies have health insurance policies that include encouraging healthy food choices in places such as a business place's vending machines, so owners and managers make the products available.

"This gives people the opportunity, if they want it, to eat healthy foods. If an item tastes good and is something they want, they'll buy it," Starkweather said.

Valley Vending's popular choices on the healthy side include Fiber One bars, granola bars, licorice and beef sticks. They also offer sugar-free wafers for those on restricted diets.

Valley Vending tries to offer about 20 percent healthy items in each machine, Starkweather said, but some clients demand that the figure be 30 percent to 40 percent.

Other clients work out a strategy to encourage consumption by pricing the healthy items less expensively than the others, he added. That means regular potato chips might be 90 cents a bag while low-fat pretzels are 75 cents.

Valley Vending's program works pretty well, Starkweather said.

"But I'll tell you, if a person's had a bad day and they go to the machine with a choice of a granola bar or Snickers, they'll go for the Snickers every time," he added.