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So remind us, Howard County, why was providing access to healthy food in vending machines ever controversial?

So remind us, Howard County, why was providing access to healthy food in vending machines ever controversial?
Food for sale inside a Farmers Fridge vending machine kiosk, April 30, 2019, in Merchandise Mart. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Next month, bids are due for vending machines in Howard County government buildings and facilities. This is not normally a stop-the-presses moment. But in Maryland’s most affluent subdivision (based on median household income), common sense moves don’t always come easily. Five years ago, the Howard County Council approved legislation requiring that three-quarters of the food dispensed from vending machines meet minimum nutritional standards. (Think granola bars and baked chips — not exactly medically-supervised diet fare but not exclusively candy bars and sugary drinks either.) It was assailed from certain quarters as a “nanny state” move. The Republican county executive vetoed the bill, and the Howard County Council overrode it. But the measure wasn’t fully implemented as county officials used a loophole to maintain existing vending contracts — until now.

How fitting that it’s County Executive Calvin Ball who is bringing the bill into a healthy fruition as he was the measure’s lead sponsor when he was on the council. But how shameful that it’s taken this long. A half-decade ago, the county was at the vanguard of the healthy snack trend. Today, it’s middle of the pack. Baltimore and Baltimore County as well as Montgomery, Prince George’s and Charles counties along with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission operate under similar guidelines. It appears the only thing that held it back was this idea that government has no business paying attention to the contents of vending machines on its property. This is ludicrous on the face of it, but let’s examine that nanny state claim.

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First, does nutrition matter? That’s like asking if the U.S. has an obesity problem. Of course, it does. Poor nutrition is tied to all kinds of health problems including diabetes and cancer. Howard County’s own surveys have found a majority (60%) of respondents admit to being obese and about 7% have been diagnosed with diabetes. Perhaps a lot of people who find themselves in county buildings or parks, maybe even most, prepare healthy lunches or snacks to take along. But surely not everyone. Why not make healthier choices more readily available? Why is this different form government making sure there are sidewalks, curb cuts or walk/don’t walk signals at intersections? Those are healthy choices, too. And, again, it’s not like nutritional guidelines demand dressing-free kale salads whenever you push D-20. More like snacks with no trans-fats, no more than 200 calories per package and less than 35% of calories from fat. Oh, and don’t forget the other 25 percent of the machine can have the most dangerous cuisine available. Chocolate-dipped gummies? Double-fried pork rinds with extra salt? Beef tallow-on-a-stick? The mind boggles.

And if we’re going to complain about nanny states, perhaps people should note the private sector is doing the same darn thing. Companies have wised up, too, particularly those that pay the high cost of health insurance. Healthy food in vending machines and cafeterias (along with maybe a little longer walk to the employee parking area) is now a corporate strategy. Discount gym memberships, lower health insurance costs to employees who pledge to make healthier lifestyle choices, perhaps free sparkling water around the office, all have grown in popularity. Nobody is forced to make smart choices, but they are given the option of good decision which is why the presence of healthy food in a vending machine doesn’t represent the collapse of capitalism, it’s more like responsible stewardship — like government sweeping the streets or posting lifeguards around its public swimming pools.

The counter argument is always that the free market ought to rule, and committed libertarians might say the vending machine operator ought to load his machines based on what sells. But, of course, if we were absolutists about that, we’d let them stock with oxycodone, packs of Camels and cans of Miller Lite. Productivity would suffer, of course. So would everyone’s health, precipitously. But the nanny state label sure wouldn’t stick.

We don’t know if Mr. Ball will have a grand celebration when the vending machine bids come in next month and cases of V-8 juice eventually show up outside his Ellicott City offices. The moment probably won’t seem quite that momentous. But let’s just pause a moment and think of those last five years of resisting healthier vending machine fare as costly — not so much in terms of the price of snacks in government facilities but perhaps in the health, well-being and longevity of those who patronized vending machines.

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