Vending machines at Prince George’s County libraries and government buildings would be required to offer affordable healthy snacks and beverage options, according to a law passed by the County Council on Tuesday in its final session before summer recess.
The council voted unanimously to approve a bill championed by vice-chair Dannielle Glaros (D-Riverdale Park), who has been the lead sponsor on several bills aimed at expanding access to healthy food, including legalizing food truck hubs, expanding opportunities for farmers markets and promoting urban agriculture.
If signed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), the measure would take effect 45 days later.
Prince George’s would be the fourth jurisdiction in Maryland to adopt measures mandating contracted companies to stock vending machines on government property with packaged food and drink choices that are low in fat, sodium and sugar.
Baltimore City, Howard and Montgomery counties have all implemented healthy vending policies in the last two years. The Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission adopted a separate but similar policy in April for all the recreational and park facilities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
“It’s a way government can make a statement that they are committed to a culture of health and making sure employees and residents have healthy options,” said Shawn McIntosh, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group that helped craft the legislation in Prince George’s and other Maryland jurisdictions.
The vending industry has argued against such measures, saying they are unnecessarily burdensome to local business because market demands are already pushing most beverage and snack companies toward providing healthier products.
The Prince George’s law requires that at least half the offerings in any vending machine meet healthy nutritional standards. Granola bars, trail mix and baked chips must be less than 200 calories per package and meet the federal “low-sodium” definition. Water, milk and juice must contain fewer than 40 calories per serving and real fruits or vegetables.
All of those products should cost as much or less than junk food, soda and candy that are sold from the machines, and must be arranged within the machine in places with the highest selling potential.
Before voting, Council Chair Derrick L. Davis (D-Mitchellville) said passing a healthy vending bill is not just a “popular thing to do” but a tool in educating the county’s majority African American population about how food choice can reduce rates of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.
The measure does not apply to the school system, which is governed by federal nutrition policies.
But for vending machines in other county buildings, it cements into law what the county government’s procurement department had already been doing in recent months.
Baker has not taken a formal position on the legislation, but he has been supportive of the county’s procurement practices.
“We definitely want to do more to provide healthy choices, but the critical thing is, here is choice,” council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) said Tuesday. “We are not telling people what to eat, but providing options.”