County Council members and health advocates Tuesday presented a proposed bill that would require vending machines on county property to offer healthier products.
If approved, the bill would mandate that all vending machine service contracts with the county by July 2017 require at least 50 percent of food and drink items offered meet the health standards provided in the bill. By July 2018, at least 65 percent of items would have to meet that standard.
The bill would affect 168 vending machines on county property, including those in public buildings, libraries and fire stations. The health standards include limitations on the caloric and trans fat content of food and drink items.
Council member George Leventhal, who is sponsoring the bill, said existing contracts already require some health standards for vending machine products and the legislation would expand the standards and codify them into law. Since the machines are on county property, including health facilities, he said it is reasonable for the county to have a say in the products sold through them.
"We're just simply trying to put in law a basic guideline that is consistent with our overall goal," Leventhal said, "and that is that we want Montgomery County to be the healthiest county in America."
Speaking at a press conference in the Council Office Building in Rockville Tuesday before a public hearing, Leventhal listed the benefits of healthier options and held up examples of healthy and unhealthy snacks.
Leventhal said the council is not looking into mandating that healthier food be offered in vending machines not owned by the county.
Council member Craig Rice, a co-sponsor of the bill, said many county residents already seek healthy options, and the bill would help fight against the high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and hypertension among minority residents.
"This is the right thing for us to do, it's the right message for us to send, especially when it comes to health disparities that we continue to see in our communities of color," Rice said. "These are things that are going to help us make that difference."
Health advocates from Sugar Free Kids Maryland and Real Food for Kids Montgomery pointed to the bill as a step in the right direction and a way for the county to set a healthy example.
"We're very excited about this bill because we're excited to have healthier options in our public places like our libraries and our public buildings where our children go and where we go," Lindsey Parsons, director of Food for Kids Montgomery, said.
Shawn McIntosh, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, said during a Tuesday afternoon public hearing on the bill that the legislation is not about regulating what people can choose, but about providing healthy options for those who want them.
Several other advocates and residents testified at the hearing, largely in support of the bill. Marla Hollander, a public health professional and Kensington resident, said the availability of healthy snacks would be a welcome change for her children, who often are faced with unhealthy choices.
Gaithersburg High School junior Jacqueline Guzman, who has Type 1 diabetes, said she has to be careful about eating unhealthy food and believes students “should have the right to choose snacks that are healthy for us.”
Ellen Valentino, a soda company representative, said she was neutral about the bill, but warned that the bill could stop some Maryland-made products from being sold. She also said passage of the bill could result in vending machines unable to offer products that private companies are working to make healthier, even if they aren’t healthy right now.
“If you be so prescriptive, you may actually swipe out what might be a healthier choice tomorrow, [but] which might not be a healthier choice today,” Valentino said.
A Government Operations Committee work session for the bill is scheduled for March 13.