Howard Council overturns nutritional standards veto

After nearly six months of back-and-forth, a bill creating a set of nutritional guidelines for the food and drink sold in Howard County government vending machines was voted, for a final time, into law today. 

The legislation, which requires a certain percentage of the food and drink offerings in county vending machines to meet a set of caloric, fat and sugar guidelines. was first passed by the County Council in early July, and then vetoed a week later by County Executive Allan Kittleman

The 4-1 decision Friday traced party lines, with the council's lone Republican member, Greg Fox, casting the only dissenting vote. He and Kittleman argue that the bill chips away at personal freedoms. 

"I trust Howard County residents and employees to make their own decisions about what to eat," Kittleman said July 13. 

Council Democrats rebuffed him, saying the bill offers choice rather than restricting it. They said their focus was on making Howard a healthier place.

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

The final bill was stripped of several of its initial provisions. Pricing regulations -- which would have required healthy options to be at least a quarter cheaper than less healthy ones -- and a mandate that the county offer free water at public events were removed along the way. 

“It's not amended, it's gutted,” Fox said of the legislation. He added that the bill, which council members said would improve snack options for the county’s children, “really doesn't provide protections.

“For me,” he said of the vote, “it's more about principle because it doesn't accomplish anything.”

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.

About two dozen members of the grassroots advocacy group People Acting Together in Howard also turned out to watch the vote. 

"We are ecstatic," said Sandra Curran, a member of PATH's committee for children's health and wellness. "This is a victory for public health and specifically for families in Howard County." 

A beverage industry representative, 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. That sets a bad precedent," said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association.

Kittleman press secretary Andy Barth said Kittleman stood by his decision to veto the bill.

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