Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bananas in the vending machine. An overweight nation weeps

I visit the vending machine at work twice a day. Each afternoon at 2, I buy a Dr. Pepper and Doritos to go with my lunch. Later, around 4 or 5, I'll wander back down for my daily snack, sometimes Oreos, occasionally some Skittles, perhaps a Snickers.

Never, in all my trips to the vending machines, have I gazed at the overpriced offerings and thought, "God, I wish we had some bananas in there."

Yet many people apparently do wish that.

"The big push for vending machines to sell healthier snacks has overlooked something: It isn't easy for a machine to deliver an unbruised banana. The Wittern Group Inc... .say they are tackling this problem with a new machine specifically designed to dispense whole bananas and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables."

That's according to this Wall Street Journal article. I have nothing against healthy food offerings, though my body - which is made up of 70 percent water and 30 percent grease - might reject a healthy afternoon snack. A banana at 4 might send me into convulsions, or induce vomiting. People should certainly have the option. My fear is that someday vending machines will consist only of healthy food. You'll have to get candy on the black market. Imagine: Nice yellow bananas, crunchy red apples, grapes, pears, peaches. One day, broccoli.

I plead with the vending machine powers and our lawmakers: Don't take away our beloved treats in the name of saving us from our own sugary desires. Our vending machines at work give so much, and in return only ask for 75 cents. Or 80 cents. Occasionally 90 cents. Still, they ask for so little.

A few years ago a new soda machine appeared in our cafeteria, a contraption that came from the demented mind of a bored, four-eyed NASA scientist who had long ago tired of designing plausible scenarios for a manned mission to Mars. Instead of simply dropping the product, a mechanical arm deliberately, slowly, agonizingly makes a series of motions, rising, hovering and grabbing the can or bottle before returning it into a slot that then pushes outward. It's like a Rube Goldberg project designed by stoned grad students, a food-focused version of that damned carnival claw millions of kids have used in a futile effort to grab a toy. Inevitably it breaks down, depriving the entire building of caffeine. People curse, some cry, a few kick. There are too many moving parts. Of course it falters. I also believe the creators purposely designed the machine to pause a few crucial seconds before coughing up change. A person puts a dollar in, waits 15 seconds for the soda, then quickly walks away. The machine, meanwhile, pauses briefly before depositing the change. Many a worker never realizes they're leaving nickels, quarters and dimes behind. Some people will call after the unfortunate soul, warning them. Other times, the next person in line simply pockets the money, figuring they're breaking even for previous times when they themselves forgot the change. This is the peak of vending technology, a machine that pits worker against worker?

For a few years we had access to an ice-cream machine, an ice-cream machine that invariably didn't have any of the products it claimed to possess. Ice cream sandwich? Try another selection, please. Chipwich? Another selection, please. When it did have the advertised offerings, the ice cream sandwiches were so hard you had to put them in the microwave for up to a minute. An ice-cream sandwich shouldn't require hitting the "baked potato" option on a nuclear device. It was probably for the best that the machine just disappeared one day. Few noticed, none mourned.

The candy machine remains, still blissfully free of bananas and apples. It's still always an adventure. I don't know that I've ever bought a Twix from a vending machine that wasn't half-melted, the chocolate clinging to the wrapper. For a time, our machine didn't offer Snickers or Crunch bars or Kit-Kats or Hershey's or anything that a normal, candy-bar-eating American would recognize. There were granola-type bars, and bars with weird packaging and strange names. Things that hippies might eat.

Thankfully the real things returned. The machine usually has Starburst, a personal favorite. Sometimes it contains Skittles, my all-time favorite. But a note for vending machine owners: If you're going to give us Skittles, we need access to the real thing, the red bag. Put the blue tropical bag in. But the red bag better be one slot over. Unfortunately, all of our Skittles are stacked in one aisle, so sometimes you'll get a red bag but the next one behind it is blue or orange. It'd be like offering a soda machine that only served Diet Coke. I trust the sales department has better access to the numbers, but I don't know that I've ever seen anyone eating Tropical Skittles. The most sickening moment comes when you're stuck behind someone who gets that last red bag. They give you an aw-shucks look, but inside they feel no pity.

As I wrote, every day I buy Doritos that I pair with my sandwich. They're 60 cents. Not a terrible price. Of course, the bag is actually only half-full - or is it half-empty? - with the orange treats, but at this point I think people expect that from their vending machine chips. I'm actually happy when they're half-full. For a time our machine hosted some type of potato chip that had about six chips per bag, as if the government had declared a chip emergency and rationing was in place. Is this a health-related thing? Do manufacturers save us from our own slobbish ways?

Fill the damn bags to the top with chips. Give us a machine that drops a can of soda in less than five seconds. Don't tease us with tropical Skittles. And if you're going to put fruit in the machines to save us, at least keep in all of the treats that will one day kill us.

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