Get your carrots, not cookies, from Howard County's vending machines

Want Cheetos and a Coke? Don't expect that from a vending machine on Howard County property.

Healthy options are coming to Howard County, but some think the carrot is a stick.

Four of five Howard County Council members, all Democrats, voted Friday to overturn County Executive Allan Kittleman's veto of a bill that creates nutritional guidelines for the food and drinks sold in government vending machines.

Kittleman, the county's first Republican executive since 1998, framed the issue as one of choice for workers and visitors to county buildings, even if that means they choose fluorescent orange doodles chased by a bubbly soda.

"I trust Howard County residents and employees to make their own decisions about what to eat," Kittleman said before vetoing the bill that passed in early July after six months of debate.

Greg Fox, the County Council's lone Republican, voted against overturning the veto.

In December, Kittleman also overturned a ban on the sale of sugary drinks and high-calorie snacks on county property and at events sponsored by the county.

But given the nation's weight problem and ensuing health issues — government data shows more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese — an increasing number of government officials across the country feel an obligation to offer healthier options on their property.

Cities and counties in 27 states, and some entire states such as California, have passed healthy vending machine laws, according to a study last year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group said, however, that a study of hundreds of machines on government property across the country found the majority still offer largely "junk."

Margo G. Wootan, the center's director of nutrition policy, called healthy vending machines "one of the hottest national trends no one has heard of."

She said many governments — which pay the health insurance bills for employees as well as residents on public plans — are passing laws or making rules that don't garner much attention. Schools and hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins, are following suit. She said Howard County is getting attention because it was politically more dramatic.

"People talk about the nanny state gone amok, but they don't seem to mind when it's the food industry that is dictating food policy by offering only big portions and junky options in vending machines," Wootan said. "It's OK if Coke or Pepsi is your nanny, but not a thoughtful public official who tries to support healthy eating."

Coke and Pepsi, as well as other giant beverage- and snack-makers, long ago entered the market for healthier foods and drinks. PepsiCo owns water company Aquafina and Coca Cola owns Desani, for example. The trend continues. Just last year, General Mills added Annie's Homegrown to its roster of healthy snack options.

The Beverage Marketing Corp. reported recently that soft drink sales continue to drop and water sales continue to rise, as do sales of bottled coffee and tea.

That doesn't mean the beverage industry is happy about such legislation. An industry representative called the Howard council's decision "disappointing" and "shortsighted."

"The council's override paves the way for these arbitrary and confusing nutritional recommendations to become part of the Howard County code," said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association. "That sets a bad precedent."

The move presents an opportunity for companies such as William Carpenter, CEO of Annapolis-based Vend Natural, which owns more than 700 so-called healthy vending machines around the country. He is considering bidding on the Howard vending contract.

Carpenter said he's constantly looking for the right mix of snack and drinks. He said fresh-cut fruits and vegetables are good sellers, as are Kind Bars, a mix of dried fruits and nuts. Coconut water and soy milk haven't caught on yet, but Vend Natural continues to test different brands.

"It's a big change for traditional vendors to stock these kinds of snacks and beverages," he said. "But people like these choices."

And that's the point, said Councilman Calvin Ball, lead sponsor of the Howard bill.

"This expands options," said Ball, a Democrat. "I think Howard County has long been a leader when it comes to healthier choices. I think the bill would move that forward."

The county has become known for its public health activism, sometimes frustrating businesses and some residents. Under former Democratic County Executive Ken Ulman and his top health officer, Dr. Peter Beilenson, the county adopted a first-in-the-nation ban on the use of indoor tanning beds by minors. The county also launched a program to expand health coverage for uninsured residents before the federal Affordable Care Act.

On Friday, the council also unanimously approved a bill banning "vaping" — or the use of electronic cigarettes and vaporizers — in public places. Introduced by Councilman Jon Weinstein, an Ellicott City Democrat, the bill builds on the county's law against smoking in restaurants and bars, at outdoor athletic events and in amphitheaters, among other public places.

Howard led the state by going completely smoke-free in 2006, and five years later passed another milestone by becoming the first county in Maryland to ban smoking in parks.

While saying he liked Kittleman, whom he described as a moderate, Beilenson said he feared the new executive would attempt to dial back some of these initiatives rather than pursue new ones. He said that runs counter to the population's healthy bent. The county had been ranked the state's healthiest for years by the University of Wisconsin and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This year it came in second to Montgomery County.

Beilenson said he didn't think the healthy vending machines would be all that restrictive. He noted that no one would pat down workers or visitors for unhealthy snacks and drinks as they enter public property.

"You can still bring in a Pepsi or Big Mac," he said. "It's simply a question of whether the county is going to sell these things. If you can encourage folks to eat more healthy, it's a worthwhile thing to do."

Kittleman shrugged off Friday's override of this veto.

"When I vetoed the bill, I did it because I think it's the right thing to do. I didn't do it because it's a 'Republican opinion,'" he said. "We can have differences of opinion — we just had one. That's OK."

Beilenson said the bill could have been even stronger. It was stripped of several of its initial provisions such as pricing regulations that would have required healthy options to be at least 25 cents cheaper than less healthy ones and a mandate that the county offer free water at public events.

The legislation only requires 75 percent of the food and drink offerings in county vending machines to meet a set of caloric, fat and sugar guidelines.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, the public health nonprofit that advised Ball on the legislation, called it a "strong bill" that included compromise.

"We're happy the health of our community is expanded by the council's vote," she said.

"We are ecstatic," added Sandra Curran, a member of the grassroots advocacy group People Acting Together in Howard's committee for children's health and wellness. "This is a victory for public health and specifically for families in Howard County."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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