Horizon Foundation works to spread healthy vending options across state

Lisa Philip
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Last year, the Horizon Foundation was part of a successful campaign to make the county government's vending machines healthier.

In the new year, the Howard County-based health advocacy group is working to bring healthy vending options to state properties across Maryland.

"Obviously we passed legislation in Howard County," said Horizon President Nikki Highsmith Vernick. "Being a leader in the state, if others don't follow, we don't now want to move backwards, right? So this is a way to make sure that this spreads throughout the state."

Horizon is a partner in Sugar Free Kids Maryland, a statewide coalition established in 2014 to combat childhood obesity and teenage diabetes; in Maryland, 15 percent of 10 to 17-year-olds are obese, according to a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Highsmith Vernick joined other members of the coalition in Baltimore on Tuesday to announce their proposal of the "Maryland Healthy Vending Act," which would place nutritional restrictions on state vending machines, during the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session. The legislative session begins Jan. 13.

"When we think of state properties, we're not just focused on state employee buildings — we think of park and recreation facilities, places where kids play," the Horizon leader said.

The bill, for which a legislative sponsor has not yet been announced, is supported by the American Heart Association, The Maryland State Medical Society and the National Association for the Advancement Colored People and would require 75 percent of food and drinks sold in vending machines on state property to meet certain health standards. All snacks sold would have to meet trans fat and sodium standards and every vending machine on state property would be required to sell plain bottled water.

The legislation would also require healthier foods and beverages "to be displayed in a way that distinguishes them from the other items and be placed in vending locations with the highest selling potential," according to a press release. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene would assist procurement officials in monitoring and enforcing the law.

Similar legislation passed by the Howard County Council last summer requires 75 percent of food and drinks in county government vending machines to meet caloric, fat and sugar guidelines. Measures that required healthy options to be cheaper and that the county offer free water at public events were taken out of the bill.

The statewide legislation will probably be challenged by the beverage industry, as was the Howard legislation. When the Howard council passed the bill, one industry lobbyist called the 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."

Other opponents of the Howard legislation, including County Executive Allan Kittleman, said that it unfairly limited public choice.

"I trust Howard County residents and employees to make their own decisions about what to eat," Kittleman said before vetoing the bill last July. The County Council subsequently voted to overturn his veto.

But Highsmith Vernick said that the current proposed state legislation, as well as the approved county legislation, gives the public more options.

"People want healthier options," she said. "If you want unhealthier options, those will be available too. We're not limiting choice, we're actually expanding choice."

"This legislation is about giving people choices," said Michaeline Fedder, government affairs director of the American Heart Association Mid-Atlantic Division. "For those who want to have a healthy snack, it would be there for them. Those who want to buy a cola and a bag of fried chips would still be able to buy those items. This legislation offers options. It doesn't force anyone to consume anything they don't want to consume."

Beyond expanding choice, the statewide legislation, Highsmith Vernick said, promotes "smart government."

"It protects the public's health and it protects the state's fiscal interests, because of how much we end up spending on these chronic diseases," she said, referring to obesity and diabetes. "This would lower the health care costs for state employees and for those on the Medicaid program."

The Horizon president laughed when asked about challenges the bill might face in the General Assembly.

"Absolutely none," she said. "It's just going to sail through and get signed right away."

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