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Howard nutrition bill debate weighs values of free market, government responsibility

Councilman's bill opens debate on who chooses the snacks in Howard County

Last month, shortly before county residents, business owners and health experts arrived to testify on a bill that would create nutritional guidelines for Howard County food and drink sales, a new vending machine made its quiet debut at the George Howard government headquarters in Ellicott City.

Squeezed into a small nook by the stairs at the back of the building, the machine stands taller and stretches wider than its neighbors. On top, chalk-white capital letters against a black background announce: "Goodness Inside."

The Howard building's newest addition is stocked with items seldom seen in conventional vending machines. There's a mixture of food and drink offerings: Quaker Oats breakfast bars next to whey-packed protein snacks; Naked smoothies; Sabra hummus dips with pretzels; Izze fruit sodas; and Stacy's pita chips.

The machine is one out of just 50 of its kind, according to the company that installed it, but hints at a future of healthier snack options. And it's appeared right as discussion is once again turning to whether Howard County should create a set of nutritional guidelines for the food and drinks sold on its property.

Councilman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, introduced a bill last month that would require 75 percent of food and drink offerings in the county's vending machines, as well as those served or sold at county events, to meet a set of nutritional guidelines that include limits on calorie and sodium counts. In "youth-oriented facilities" such as libraries, parks and recreational centers, all of the offerings would have to meet the standards.

The proposed guidelines are similar to those implemented by a 2012 executive order during former County Executive Ken Ulman's administration and repealed by current County Executive Allan Kittleman in December; but these guidelines include more wiggle room. Popular county events such as Wine in the Woods and the Fourth of July fireworks on Columbia's lakefront would be exempt from the rules, as would nonprofits that collect money through concessions sales, such as youth sports booster clubs.

Debate, so far, has tread familiar ground. Public health advocates warn of rising obesity rates in the county and across the nation. Small business owners worry about profit margins, and others argue for personal choice and public education campaigns rather than government mandates.

On May 18, more than two dozen people shared their thoughts on the standards in a hearing that lasted about five hours. Several dozen more, mostly from the community advocacy group People Acting Together in Howard, showed up in silent support of the legislation.

Beyond the snippets of testimony, at the root of the issue lies a fundamental judgment call. Should county government or the free market govern consumer options on Howard property?

Stocking the machines

Scott Meskin falls squarely in the second camp.

Meskin has owned Black Tie Services, the company that supplies Howard County's 59 vending machines, since the 1980s. (Black Tie Services also stocks the snacks at the Baltimore Sun's office building, where the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier offices are located.)

The business has changed during that time, he said, but the favorites have stayed the same.

Of the 10 candy options Meskin stocks in his machines, the top two items – which represent 50 percent of his candy sales – have long been Snickers and peanut M&Ms.

"Needless to say, I want to put Snickers and M&M peanuts in every machine," he says.

Meanwhile, the most popular drink Meskin sells in his beverage machines is Diet Coke. The second-best seller is water, followed by full-sugar Coca Cola and Coke Zero. Other than the full-sugar Coke, all of the drinks would meet Ball's proposed standards. As a result, Meskin stocks more of the lower calorie drinks.

He says that's evidence of consumer demand expanding healthier offerings. The strength of his business, he argues, rests on providing "what the consumer wants to buy.

"I don't make any more [profit] on a Snickers bar than I do on a granola bar," he said. "To me, it doesn't make a difference what I sell."

One difference between a Snickers bar and a cup of Sabra hummus, however, is cost. While vendors typically try to stick to a price limit of $1 or $2 per snack, hummus will set a customer back $3.

It's also more perishable, which poses a problem if a product is not popular enough to move off the shelves quickly.

"We'll try anything for customer service reasons, but we can't leave it in if it's not moving," Meskin said.

Instead, he sees the healthy options offered in the county's new vending machine as a supplement to his more conventional machine; a way to capture more of the market.

"We've now got a great way to maximize our sales by selling more items," he said. "The concern with going to that machine is not the same concern as shopping out of the other one."

As for his less healthy items, he said his sales suggest customers in Howard County treat the snacks more as an occasional treat than a daily staple. His 59 vending machines in the county rake in about $120,000 a year, which he estimates would translate to about $1 spent per person a month.

"The infrequent trips a person makes to a vending machine are not going to shape their diets moving forward," he said.

Focus on employee health

Dr. Richard Safeer has a different view.

As the medical director of employee health and wellness for the Johns Hopkins hospital system, he spent about a year crafting a set of nutritional standards for the drinks sold in Hopkins hospitals.

Last fall, the system – which includes Howard County General Hospital – rolled out a new policy limiting the percentage of high-calorie drinks in the hospital's vending machines and cafeterias. Similar to Ball's legislative proposal, healthy options also must be 25 cents cheaper than less healthy ones and must be displayed at eye level.

Safeer said the hospital's guidelines were carefully considered and based on research findings.

"There's research that shows that the cost of a beverage influences the decision of what to purchase, [as well as] the placement," he said. "Everything that's in our strategy, there's evidence to show it could help people make a healthier choice."

While the hospital is working on a sales evaluation of the program, employee health, he said, should come first.

"Johns Hopkins Medicine is committed to health, and so there was never a question about what this was going to do to our revenue, because it was never our intention to put money over health," he said.

For Ball, too, the bill is a value statement.

"It's not uncommon, when making purchases, to ensure the companies with which you're dealing reflect your values," he said, pointing out that the county requires some of its other contractors to pay workers a living wage. "I care about our community, I care about our employees, and I want them to have those healthier options available to them."

Black Tie Services also supplies the vending machines at Hopkins. Meskin took over the contract in April; because he knew about the rule coming in, he says, he was able to factor an expectation of lower sales into his business plan.

However, he has to send an employee to Howard County General Hospital more frequently to restock the vending machine's two top sellers, Pepsi and Mountain Dew, because of restrictions on what he can offer.

Ball said he thinks consumers will soon respond positively to a wider array of food and drink options in county vending machines. He likened the current debate to one nine years ago, when the council decided to ban smoking in county restaurants.

At the time, restaurant owners "were extremely concerned about us having a smoking ban, and talked about how that would adversely impact all business countywide, drive down sales, drive down tax revenue," Ball said. "I think what we've actually seen is an increase in people wanting to patronize those establishments."

"There's a lot of concern and fear of the unknown, and I think as we move forward with implementation of expanding healthier options and choices, we're going to see that it's something that's doable and manageable."

But for Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, the bill has too many details that need ironing out. He says the bill will be costly for Howard – the regulations, for example, might impact purchasing decisions at the county jail – and doesn't accomplish what it sets out to do by offering too many exceptions.

"It's one of the worst written bills in the nine years I've been on the council," Fox said. "This is nothing more than an unfortunate political stunt."

There will be more time to iron out the details – councilmembers voted Monday to table the bill.

In the meantime, county employees in search of a healthy snack can grab a smoothie at the George Howard building.

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