It could get a bit harder for people in Prince George’s County to buy chips, cookies or soda in county facilities, if a bill to limit those choices and stock vending machines with healthier options is embraced by the County Council.
Vice Chair Dannielle M. Glaros (D-Riverdale Park) introduced the bill Tuesday, saying she wanted to address the negative health impacts of sugary and fatty foods in a county with high rates of diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases.
The legislation would require that 50 percent of packaged food and beverages in machines located on county, municipal and park property meet federal health standards. For future vending contracts, 65 percent of items sold would have to be healthy.
“There is clearly a nexus between health and access to healthy food,” Glaros said, noting that the county government spends $95 million annually for employee health insurance and wellness programs.
The vending bill is similar to a 2015 Howard County law that requires that 75 percent of the vending-machine offerings in county-owned spaces be healthy.
A bill mandating healthy vending choices statewide failed in the Maryland General Assembly this year, and Montgomery County recently studied the issue. Washington requires that half of food and beverages sold in city vending machines be nutritionally sound, and Alexandria, Va., allows only healthy snacks in machines located in city facilities.
The food and beverage industry has fought against such bills, arguing that citizens do not want the government limiting their food choices. Vendors already are moving toward more healthy foods and consumers already can find machines that offer healthier options, said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Beverage Association.
“We sell what people want to buy,” she said, noting that Prince George’s is home to several soft-drink factories, which could be hurt by the bill.
The advocacy group Sugar Free Kids Maryland, which helped craft the Prince George’s bill and has been pushing similar legislation across the state, says the industry is not changing quickly enough.
“People don’t realize what they are putting into their bodies,” said Executive Director Shawn McIntosh. “This is not about taking away people’s choices but giving them more options.”
Glaros’s bill would limit the sale of any snack with more than 200 calories or a high fat, calorie or sugar content, and it would require such foods to be displayed less prominently than healthier options.
The items also would have to be limited and stocked within the machine in a place with the lowest selling potential.
Beverages that exceed 40 calories per serving would be considered unhealthy. All vending machines would have to include bottled water and display nutritional information for all products.
The bill says healthier snacks must be “comparably priced or less expensive” than products with lower nutritional value.
Glaros said the bill codifies protocols the county government already is implementing through its procurement process, which requires vendors to include healthy foods in their offerings to win contracts.
Every county-owned building, including recreation centers, fire stations and government offices, has at least two vending machines, she estimated.
“People don’t want junk anymore,” said Roland L. Jones, head of the county office that issues contracts to vendors. “The government should lead the way in setting the example for healthier living.”
Glaros, a first-term lawmaker, also has proposed legislation to expand urban farming, encourage more farmers markets and rewrite regulations for county food trucks. Each of those bills were adopted.
A founding member of the county’s Food Equity Council, Glaros says she wants to improve residents’ access to healthy food options in a county where several communities were labeled “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013.
“We have an overabundance of fast food,” Glaros said. “And we have fewer restaurants per capita in the region. Every new restaurant that does open does incredibly well. Clearly, people want more access to greater food options.”
She said she is exploring legislation that would encourage organizations with commercial kitchens, such as churches, to lease their space to food entrepreneurs.
“I guess I just love food,” she said.
To become law, the vending bill must be voted out of committee in the next few weeks. The bill does not affect Prince George’s schools, which already follow federal nutrition and vending guidelines.