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Food Fight Over Vending Machines

The intent is simple, according to AB 727 author Assembly member Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles).

“We would like the food sold in vending machines and cafeterias in state buildings to meet minimum nutritional and sustainability standards,” Mitchell said. “AB 727 will promote a healthier workforce by making healthy food options more acceptable and affordable.”

The Assembly Committee on Health last week approved AB 727, but only after a long, protracted and surprisingly emotional hearing.

The bill would require that healthy foods account for at least 50% of the items stocked in vending machines on state property. Current law sets the threshold at 35%. The idea is that vending machines are loaded with high-fat, high-sugar snack foods, and that candy and snacks in those machines are contributing to obesity in California and slowing workers’ productivity.

Vendor operators like Jim Howie said that healthy foods such as granola bars don’t sell very well.

“When you’re talking about fruits and nuts, which don’t sell, you’re looking at products that don’t sell, they expire after 14 days,” Howie said. “We can’t afford to throw away food that people won’t buy.”

Howie said the legislation would cause more problems than it would fix. “You’re really attacking the small business guy,” he said. “The healthy food, it sits, it expires and we throw it away. And if I don’t sell them that Snickers bar, they’ll go across the street and buy it.”

Andy Brown of the California Vendors and Policy Committee added that he sells only 20% to 25% healthy foods, no matter how much he stocks. “We’ve had 100% healthy food in schools for years,” Brown said, “and we still have obese children. Is this bill going to do any good? I don’t think so.”

Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) asked Mitchell why adults shouldn’t make their own choices, and Mitchell responded that’s exactly what she’s trying to do.

“When I’m here during budget negotiations, and it’s one in the morning, Senator Strickland, no one loves a Snickers more than I do. But if I go to a machine that only stocks Snickers, I don’t have a choice. If there are other things offered, then I have a choice.”

Mitchell said similar resistance came up in previous years when the tobacco industry first faced restrictions from the state.

“But don’t you think there’s a difference between candy and sodas and tobacco?” Strickland asked.

“Given the fact that I lost a brother and a father to lung cancer who were long-term smokers, and given that I have [several] family members who are experiencing chronic health conditions as a result of obesity,” Mitchell said, “I can say they are both very, very lethal weapons when they’re misused.”

Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) said she understood the business dilemma but she called the debate a public health issue, like mandating car seats or restricting tobacco use.

“This is the health committee,” Alquist said. “This is not the business committee, it’s the health committee.”

Mitchell said the to-do over vending machine policy may have become a little overstated.

“We are not trying to change the universe here,” she said. “We’re just trying to have state employees have healthier choices.”

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