Written by Joy Choquette

A city pool is known as a great place to swim: whether that’s during open swimming time, through lessons or during swim meets. Recreation Director, Kelly Viens was concerned, though, about the mixed messages the pool was sending. Kids were coming to the snack bar to buy soda and candy long before public swimming hours started. When one boy requested five caffeine-fueled sodas with a five-dollar bill clutched in his hand, Viens said she had to refuse his request. It also got her thinking: why shouldn’t the snack bar provide healthier options to the kids and adults who use the pool? “Why do we have a snack bar where we’re trying to stop kids from buying this? Let’s fix this.”

That question started Viens and the rest of the Recreation Department staff on a new mission, one that would cover several years and see several metamorphoses.

Today, the snack bar at St. Albans City Pool bears little resemblance to the one present just a few years ago. The biggest change? A beautiful display cooler, which keeps healthy snack options chilled and readily available. The cooler, provided by a grant through RiseVT, was a game-changer, said Viens. “That (cooler) made such a difference. We had the intention and ‘want’ to do this, but the cooler put it over the top and made it possible.”

Now, in place of sugary snacks and soda, the snack bar offers healthy options like fruit salad, cut up melon, pasta salad, pepperoni and cheese, crackers, baked chips, salads and smoothies. The smoothies in particular have been a huge hit, Viens noted. “Some nights here, we might make 100 smoothies. When we started we were lucky to make 10.”

The entire healthy transformation has been a process, one that Viens said hasn’t been without growing pains. “It took some time and trial and error,” she said. “Kids don’t care about cottage cheese and hummus it turns out,” she laughed, referring to some of the earliest healthier food options stocked in the cooler. With her staff, Viens searched out healthy snack options via sites like Pinterest for display and packaging ideas.

They also discovered in their research that kids and adults alike are more likely to avoid fruits and vegetables that are whole but will easily reach for these foods if they are cut up and ready to eat. With that knowledge, staff started to prepare lidded cups of apple slices with peanut butter, salads ready-to-eat in bowls and other snacks in easy, grabbable forms. “Right-sized portions, handy to hold onto and visually appealing,” are the three guidelines that the recreation staff uses when it comes to packaging the snacks offered.

Viens also noted that when possible, City Pool buys foods from local businesses. The St. Albans Cooperative Creamery provides the snack bar with cases of beautiful, crisp apples, Viens said, while Bob’s Meat Market sells chicken threaded onto sticks for quick and easy grilling. It also sells them fresh hamburger and hotdogs. “They’re good quality, tasty and fresh,” said Viens.

The response to all of these healthier options from the community has been extremely positive. “Everyone has been very supportive,” said Viens. “Parents of day campers don’t hesitate to spend money on concessions now. It’s a healthy choice.” In addition to community members using the pool for swim lessons and public swimming, there are also swim teams who utilize the pool frequently. “Teams from other leagues often say, ‘Wow, how do you do this?’” Viens noted. “Getting the help from RiseVT has made all the difference. You can make it work,” Viens encourages other pools and community groups when faced with similar challenges. She frequently refers others to contact RiseVT and see what type of grant might help their organization.

On a typical swim team night, the snack bar will sell between 40 and 80 smoothies, 30 each of fruit salad and pasta salad cups, two dozen cheese and pepperoni containers, in addition to other low-sugar snack options like granola bars, fruit gummies and more. “We’re not making a huge profit, but we are making a profit and I feel good about it,” Viens said. “What we got rid of was sugar,” Viens noted. All of the snacks offered now have 10 grams or less of sugar with the exception of ice cream treats.

In addition to offering healthy snacks, City Pool is also a free lunch distribution site during the summer months. They see about 40 community members a day ages 18 years and younger, who access the program and otherwise might not eat a lunch at all. The pool has been a distribution site for the past 15 years, Viens said. It also installed a water bubbler so that kids can access free water, even if they don’t have money to spend on snacks.

“I’m proud of it, really proud of the change,” Viens said about the renewed and revitalized snack bar. “This was a good thing to do: for the pool, the kids and our community.”