The café has become the first state-level facility or stadium in Victoria offering guilt-free snacks, food and drinks.
Stadiums are often notorious for their unhealthy fast-food style of catering.
But for Melbourne Sports Hub CEO Phil Meggs that went against the grain of everything the centre stood for.
“It’s hard to promote health, sport and active recreation, then back that up with a menu of deep fried food and sugar,” he said.
So the team at MSAC set about a dramatic shift in profile.
They utilised the Victorian Government’s Healthy Choices traffic light guidelines which ranks food and drinks as green (excellent), amber (fine for sometimes) and red (I’m sure you can guess). They also used the Healthy Eating Advisory Service to help them get on track with healthy changes.
Starting in January they began removing the vending machines in the facility, and replacing them with a much smaller number containing healthier options such as mineral water, or small serves of milk and 99% fruit juice.
They’ve also gutted the cafeteria, and transformed it into a comfortable, welcoming café.
Gone are all the sugary snacks, chocolate-coated ice creams and soft drinks, along with the huge branded fridges and freezers that housed them.
The clean lines of the shelves, fridges and freezers are now logo-free, and filled with appetising and healthy options.
Virtually everything on the menu is now green or amber, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring.
You can still get hot chips, but they are oven baked in a high speed oven using barely any oil.
There are some homemade slices, but they are sweet enough with their own natural ingredients such as dates, so don’t need added sugar.
There are hot pies, but a smaller “traveller” size is available so the portion is healthier with lower added salt.
There’s also a wide range of menu items, and the café has introduced take home healthy meals that busy parents or late trainers can take home and heat up.
State Public Health Nutritionist Sharon Laurence says MSAC is to be applauded for its leadership and for its clever approach.
“We all know the influence that pester power has when it comes to buying unhealthy food for kids. When they see it, they ask for it. ” she said.
“What we choose to eat is powerfully influenced by access and signage”. (If you remove the visual cues then kids… and adults… will focus instead on what’s on offer.”
“And it’s also not about eliminating all unhealthy foods. Things like, chips, milk based ice creams and pies can be okay if they are well prepared and in small portions.”
“So this café isn’t a health food shop - the menu is varied – but it’s dominated by fresh healthy food that looks and tastes great.”
Phil Meggs said the transition was a challenge, but it’s been rewarding.
“It’s obviously taken time and effort to completely change our look, our focus and our food but the results are incredible.
“We’re proud of our food and so are our staff. Our goal is to be cost neutral in the early days, and gradually build from there.
Phil is introducing the concept at Lakeside Stadium and the State Hockey and Netball Centre, which are also managed by Melbourne Sports Hub.
It’s also happening at several smaller YMCA facilities across the State.
Phil is encouraging other stadiums to also focus on healthy options, but he has some cautionary advice.
“You really have to look at your own situation closely. We’re in the middle of Albert Park here and there’s no other food options close by.
“The vast majority of our customers have really embraced the change, and many stay longer now because this is a place where you can relax or work.
“But if you’re in the middle of a suburban area surrounded by cafes and restaurants, it’s probably not appropriate or viable to run a food service.
“Removing branded fridges, freezers and shelves also takes some work and investment, but if you do your homework there are options available.
“If you have the commitment and can make the business case for change, then I recommend you do it quickly. Going slow just draws out the pain and sends mixed messages to your customers.”
Long term, Phil and Sharon agree healthy food is the way of the future, and it’s now up to everyone in the industry to improve its viability.
Fresh healthy food often has a shorter shelf life, so further improving production, ordering, storing, shelf life are keys to success.
Sharon said the Victorian Government is continually working to promote healthy food options in public settings, and after more sports stadiums embrace healthy food, the next on the list could well be tuck shops at local sport facilities or swimming pools.
You can find out more on making the transition to a healthier food supply by downloading the Healthy Choices guidelines or call the Healthy Eating Advisory Service for free support on 1300 22 52 88.