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Howard seeks private bids for healthy vending machines four years after passing guidelines law

Howard seeks private bids for healthy vending machines four years after passing guidelines law
Food for sale inside a Farmer's Fridge vending machine kiosk April 30, 2019, in Merchandise Mart. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Four years after the Howard County Council passed legislation to create nutrition standards for products sold in county vending machines, Howard is seeking bids from private companies to abide by the law.

In spring 2015, then-Councilman Calvin Ball introduced a bill that would require Howard County vending machines to have at least 75% healthy snacks and drinks.

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The measure set limitations on high-calorie food and drinks and was championed by many local nonprofits including the Horizon Foundation, who viewed it as a way to combat obesity and health risks. The Democrat’s bill received disapproval from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, whose lobbyist said the move “sets a bad precedent” and “paves the way for these arbitrary and confusing nutritional recommendations.”

All four Democratic council members voted to approve the bill, while Greg Fox, the lone Republican, rejected it. Then-County Executive Allan Kittleman vetoed the proposal because he said it “does not represent good governance."

“The actual impact of this legislation will be minimal, but this precedent will create an obligation in the future for the government to continue legislating nutrition, as standards and tastes change,” the Republican wrote in a memo explaining his veto.

The County Council successfully overrode Kittleman’s veto, with Fox, again, voting in opposition.

While the legislation required Kittleman to enter into contracts under the new standards, it also had a loophole, allowing the administration to forgo the new standards so long as it recommends them to private companies.

Now that Ball is county executive, he is soliciting bids from private companies to abide by the standards the County Council set forth four years ago.

As of Friday afternoon, six companies had placed bids in the county’s online system.

The county has 52 cold beverage machines, 29 snack machines and three hot beverage machines scattered throughout Howard, including at the detention center, water treatment plant and Circuit Court in Ellicott City. The revenues generated from these machines last year was $173,256.22, according to county documents.

The company selected must have at least 75% of the packaged food and beverage options under the healthy standard. Individual packaged food cannot contain more than 200 calories.

The standards also apply to packaged foods served at youth-oriented county programs. It does not apply to property managed by the school system, county-sponsored events on private property like the Fourth of July celebration, or food sold by nonprofits on county property for fundraising purposes.

Six other Maryland counties have similar guidelines, including Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles.

"When I championed this legislation on the County Council, I was responding to community concerns about growing obesity rates and preventable health risks. Today, I am glad to take the next step forward on behalf of our employees, residents, and, most importantly, our kids’ health and wellness,” Ball said in a statement.

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