Sweet-potato crackers, bottled water and other such health-conscious items would replace much of the junk food and sugary sodas in state vending machines under a new bill in the Maryland legislature.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore) introduced a measure Thursday that would require 75 percent of the food and drinks in vending machines that are located on state property to meet strict standards for sugar, sodium and trans-fat content.
The legislation would also require vendors to display healthier items in slots that have the highest selling potential and in a way that clearly distinguishes them from junk food. Additionally, the machines would have to include calorie labels and sell plain bottled water if they offer drinks.
Howard County implemented similar rules last summer after a round of partisan fighting over the matter. County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) initially vetoed the change, but the county council overturned his action in a 4-to-1 vote in which all the Democratic members supported the override.
Advocates say Conway’s legislation would improve access to healthier foods while helping to reduce obesity and other diet-related diseases such as diabetes, especially with kids. They point to Institute of Medicine data showing that 1-in-3 children and 2-in-3 adults nationwide are overweight or obese, conditions that can lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Richard Bruno, a physician and member of the Maryland State Medical Society board of trustees, said the bill “recognizes that addressing the growing public health crises linked to poor nutrition requires leadership and creative approaches.”
Advocates gathered Thursday in Annapolis to promote Conway’s legislation, offering samples of snacks that would meet the proposed standards, including fig bars, applesauce, and crackers made of nuts and rice. They also displayed the sugar content for many popular drinks to show that some far exceed the Agriculture Department’s recommended daily limit.
“When low socio-economic families have no choice but to get those options while they’re at the DMV with their kids, we’re going to end up paying for it later on, when those kids end up with Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay or heart disease,” said Akil Patterson, executive director for the Sugar Free Kids campaign, one of the driving forces behind Conway’s initiative.
The beverage industry has opposed stricter requirements for state vending machines, saying the rules would restrict consumer choices and force businesses to deal with more red tape and bureaucracy.
“Our industry agrees that people want choices, but they want to make own decision,” said Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association.
Conway could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Several states and major cities have implemented standards similar to those that the bill proposes, including Washington state, where the rules extend to state-contracted cafeterias and snack shops, and Chicago.
At the federal level, the USDA implemented new regulations in 2013 to make school vending machines and snack bars healthier, setting limits for fat, salt and sugar. The rules also require foods from those sources to contain at least 50 percent whole grains or have a fruit, vegetable, dairy or protein as the first ingredient.