Howard's granola bar grinch

Is keeping granola bars and trail mix out of county vending machines a cause really worth a last-stand?

The choice by any elected leader to veto legislation approved by a legislative super-majority sufficient to override that veto is a truly rare action generally reserved for core beliefs — values so fundamental and important that compromise is not possible. Here is where I make my stand, a governor, county executive or mayor is essentially saying by signing off on such a last-ditch barricade, even if the result may be certain defeat.

Tax increases might rise to that standard of noble causes. Capital punishment. The right to decent health care or safe streets. All provide that sort of public policy heft. One choice that wouldn't seem to hit that high a mark would be the decision about whether enough trail mix and diet sodas are being stocked in vending machines located on government property. Yet here we are.

This week, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman vetoed legislation that would favor Nature Valley granola bars and low-calorie beverages and sports drinks over bags of Doritos and high-sugar-content sodas when it comes to stocking vending machines in county facilities. The legislation doesn't even eliminate the worst junk food entirely, as it defines healthier vending machines rather broadly. (A bag of peanuts makes the cut despite its fat content, as would baked chips, pretzels and cookies in sufficiently modest portions.) And it bans unhealthy choices entirely only in vending machines where kids might make a purchase, like recreation centers or libraries.

The measure allows county residents and employees alike to dine on as much junk food as they can tolerate (or perhaps "survive" is the better word). There's no pat-down at the entrance, no candy bar shaming, no mandatory calorie counting. There are no restrictions on sales at public events (unlike a previous version of the rules), no mandate that water be made available at outdoor festivals like Columbia's Wine in the Woods, as some had originally sought. It's just about vending machines and it's just about making sure healthier choices are well-represented and highly visible in the snack food inventory.

Yet in this, Mr. Kittleman finds only despair. He calls the limits "arbitrary," "ineffective" and an "unnecessary intrusion on personal responsibility and freedom." He thinks it's all a political response to his rejection of his predecessor's far more ambitious sugary drinks ban, an executive action Ken Ulman championed but Mr. Kittleman repealed the moment he took office. And he said he favors education to encourage healthy choices, not regulation.

Hello? We're talking about vending machines on county property. As the gangsters said in "Miller's Crossing," what's the rumpus? Howard County Public Schools already have similar restrictions on vending machine junk food. So do a growing number of employers like the Johns Hopkins Health System and cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia. For this, Mr. Kittleman wants to fall on his sword? To stand up for sour-cream-and-chives potato chips and a Dad's Root Beer for his 2,500 or so county employees? Really?

Mr. Kittleman, a Republican, was elected last fall because he seemed to be pragmatic leader willing to work with Democrats. While in the General Assembly, he voted for same-sex marriage and repealing the death penalty. Yet he's playing the role of Horatius at the Bridge in the fight against obesity, an epidemic that afflicts more than one-third of Americans? We found it bizarre that he thought overturning Mr. Ulman's sugary drink regulations so important that it was his first order of business in office, but is he so blinded on this issue that he's unable to see a compromise when it smacks him upside the head on a 4-1 vote?

On July 31, the Howard County Council will most likely override the veto and impose these modest restrictions — as they should. Education alone can't reverse the growing threat of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other related health problems. Like the successful but ongoing fight against smoking, it requires a broad, incremental approach. Ensuring county employees and visitors to county facilities have healthy food choices available to them is not a hardship, it's a small but crucial step in the direction of improved public health and one that Mr. Kittleman should have endorsed instead of fruitlessly vetoing.

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