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A truck stop sits just off Exit 65 on I-22 in Jasper, Alabama. It’s a midway stopping point between my hometown and Birmingham, where I travel often to visit friends.
My family doesn’t do regular ole gas stations unless absolutely necessary because “truckstop coffee is better,” according to my mother, a former driver.
The coffee may be better, but the food options? Not so great. At least not for someone like me who can’t eat anything. Okay, that’s hyperbole. But I can’t eat many things – unless I want to blow up like a balloon or curl into a ball for four hours wailing about stomach pain.
I am gluten and dairy intolerant and am supposed to steer clear of grains and added sugars as much as possible. Talk about difficult to nourish oneself without adequate access to healthy food options.
I could never be a truck driver.
Step into any truckstop and one of the first things you’re greeted with is a warmer with hot dogs or a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, followed by a cold section that has fruit cups and deli-meat sandwiches. Hot dogs are highly processed, fruit cups alone don’t have enough protein, and you know if you’re gluten intolerant that you can’t just eat the meat out of bread because if it even touches it, you’re getting sick.
I realize not all truck drivers experience the same health issues I do, so a turkey sandwich may not be all that unhealthy – even though it is. But for the sake of time, I won’t hop on my soapbox about how most all food in America is unhealthy even when it’s marketed as healthy.
What it boils down to is truck drivers don’t have many – sometimes not any – healthy meal options at one of the places they frequent most: truckstops that are typically built with a fast-food chain or stocked with greasy or sugary foods from gummy candies to pizza under a heat lamp.
And it’s not just my opinion based on my personal experience.
According to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that included visits to 16 truckstops across the U.S., long-haul truck drivers have very little access to healthy food choices or exercise opportunities, often leading to larger health problems from obesity and hypertension to diabetes and heart disease, among other things.
My grandfather drove a truck since before I was born, and he died from heart problems just a couple short years after retiring. I’m not saying his career is the sole cause; the precious man didn’t eat healthy at home either. But he had sleep apnea, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol – all of which the CDC mentions are more likely to occur in truck drivers compared to the rest of the U.S. working population.
So what do you when you’re behind the wheel 11-plus hours a day with nothing but a cooler shoved between the seats so you can reach and grab a snack because you can’t stop when that load has to be there at a certain time? Not many healthy restaurants exist, but the ones that do don’t offer truck parking (if there is one that does, please let me know). You can’t swing an 18-wheeler under the low clearance of a drive-thru, which we’ve already said isn’t healthy anyway. Grocery stores aren’t typically sitting right next to truckstops.
So you rely on truckstops.
Love’s recently announced that Jamba by Blendid, a robotic food service kiosk provider, is coming to several of its truckstops across the U.S. Jamba offers on-the-go freshly blended fruit and vegetable smoothies, made-to-order bowls and fresh-squeezed juices and shots, among other things. While it may or may not be an option for someone like me because the website does say “not guaranteed to be allergen-free,” at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Other truckstops have made efforts to create healthier lifestyles for drivers as well like Travel Centers of America and Petro, which offers healthier menu and snack items, exercise facilities and outdoor activities like walking trails at select locations through its StayFIT program. Pilot Company in 2014 launched PJ Fresh Marketplaces at some locations, featuring fresh, healthy and high-quality meal options.
Even with these initiatives, the majority of truckstops carry few healthy options.
And trucking companies and other companies with over-the-road drivers should advocate for truckstops to offer healthier options because it all comes back to safety. You can’t care about safety and not care about a driver’s health.
Unhealthy eating and lack of exercise can cause health problems that can result in poor driving behaviors. Have you ever felt sleepy after eating a sugary dessert? Not to mention, getting at least two-and-a-half hours of vigorous physical activity a week has been found to improve sleep, reduce stress, enhance alertness and reduce the chance of car crashes.
Companies should also consider their own health initiatives. They could offer exercise facilities and healthy grab-and-go snacks at their terminals or pay for a membership for each driver at somewhere like PlanetFitness that has flexible hours and a vast number of gyms across the country. There are other opportunities to improve driver health like health tracker apps, but most importantly is educating drivers about the risks they face compared to the remainder of the U.S. working population.
You can present drivers with healthy options, and they can still choose not to take them, but knowledge and awareness of their health risks could spur them to action.
Let’s hope as truckstops and transportation companies make efforts to improve the health of our planet by adding electric vehicles and EV charging options, among other things, that they also begin or continue to make similar efforts when it comes to fueling the nation’s driver force.