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Making healthy choice the easy choice: Council calls for healthier fare in county vending machines


Providing nutritious options consistent with Board of Health Guidelines


The Metropolitan King County Council today called on the County Executive to adopt standards to encourage people to reach for healthy snacks inside vending machines located in King County facilities.

“Vending machines offer quick food for people on the go or without accessible options nearby, but most have very limited and unhealthy choices like sugary soda pop and snacks loaded with sodium and calories,” said Julia Patterson, Chair of the Board of Health’s Healthy Eating and Active Living subcommittee. “The motion adopted today is simply about giving people the ability to choose from a variety of snacks and is part of our broader effort to combat the growing obesity epidemic in King County.”

“Providing healthier foods in vending machines will help make the healthy choice the easy choice for King County employees,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott who also serves as the chair of the Board of Health. “Organizations across the County have already implemented similar policies. Together we can make a difference in our fight against obesity.”

“These guidelines suggest that the Executive work with vendors to make it easier for employees and customers to make healthier food and beverage choices, through a broader selection of items and attractive pricing,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert, vice chair of the Board of Health. “It shouldn’t be a chore or expensive to find healthy food away from home.”

Obesity and poor nutrition are serious problems in King County. Over half of adults and almost a third of youth are overweight or obese – which can lead to serious health problems such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. Additionally, less than one third of adults and youth report consuming enough fruits and vegetables daily, and a third of youth report consuming one or more sodas daily.

According to a 2005 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans spend almost 50 percent of their food budget on meals away from home. With this in mind, at its May meeting the Board of Health unanimously adopted the Healthy Vending Guidelines as a voluntary policy tool for organizations and work sites to improve the nutritional quality of food and beverages in vending machines. Vending machine food and beverages are not currently required to meet any specific nutrition guidelines. Nutrition guidelines are an emerging strategy to improve the nutritional quality of food available in vending machines.

The guidelines were created from the recommendations of the Board of Health’s Healthy Eating Active Living subcommittee and identify criteria for classifying foods in three categories:

Healthiest—Nutrient rich and primarily whole foods with little or no added sugar and sodium (fresh vegetables, unsalted nuts or seeds, plain water, unflavored non-fat or 1percent milk).
Healthier—More processed or refined foods than Healthiest foods, with more added sugar, sodium or fat (fresh vegetables with little added salt, sugar or fat, baked potato chips, artificially-sweetened beverages, such as diet sodas).
Limited—Foods high in sodium, sugar, fat and refined grains (potato chips, donuts or cookies, salted nuts and seeds, sodas or sports drinks).

The adopted motion requests the Executive to adopt standards consistent with the Healthy Vending Guidelines adopted by the Board of Health for vending machines in county facilities. Specifically, the motion requests that the Executive work with vendors to increase the percentage of healthy foods and beverages, with a goal of achieving 75 percent healthy foods, including 50 percent from the Healthiest category and 25 percent from the Healthier category. The motion would impact the 66 vending machines located in King County facilities. The machines are provided by independent vendors at no cost to King County.

With the motion, the County joins the Seattle Housing Authority, which is implementing similar guidelines. Seattle’s Parks and Recreation Department is working on achieving similar results with the vending machines in their facilities.

The motion also requests that the Executive implement the Board of Health’s suggested pricing and marketing strategies to encourage customers to purchase healthy products, including:

• Using education and marketing to promote Healthiest and Healthier products
• Using signage to identify which products are Healthiest and Healthier,
• Working with vendors to determine the feasibility of keeping prices for healthy items low,
• Posting calories for each item,
• Limiting advertising on vending machines to products found in the Healthiest and Healthier categories, and
• Placing Healthiest and Healthier products at eye level in vending machines.

Several vendors testified at the April Board of Health meeting that when machines contain more than 30 percent healthy snacks and beverages, profitability may decline. However, while the motion sets an overall target of 75 percent healthy products in vending machines, it acknowledges the need for the county to negotiate with vendors to increase the availability of healthy items and does not set a timeframe to achieve the target.

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