Snickers, Seriousness Expected for Junk Food Bill

This week, an Assembly committee will take up a plan to change the foods offered in vending machines in state buildings. No more empty calories for state workers, according to the proposed law.

AB 459 by Assembly member Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations. A similar bill authored by Mitchell last year stalled in committee. This year’s bill earned initial approval two weeks ago in the Business and Professions Committee.

According to Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the debate over the bill boils down to a fundamental issue.

“AB 459 poses the question of whether, in the midst of a $52 billion obesity epidemic, the state of California should be selling its employees soda and junk food on state property,” Goldstein said. “This bill gets the state out of the soda and junk food business.”

Advocates for the Mitchell bill say it’s not just concern over state workers’ diets, but also a question of the loss of money to the state because of obesity-related illnesses, such as diabetes.

“When the state sells these foods, it’s the taxpayers who foot the bill when those workers deal with obesity and diabetes,” Mitchell said. “We have a collective responsibility to protect state employees, and to protect the general fund.”

AB 459 would phase healthier foods into vending machines in state buildings, with the goal of reaching 100% healthy foods in machines by 2017.

Tom Linker, chair of the California Vendors Policy Committee which represents blind vendors in the state, said the legislation would hurt one of the few organized businesses for the blind in California.

“It would do harm to those who employ many thousands of people in this state,” Linker said. “Presently there is 35% [healthy foods requirement] we have to abide by.”

People don’t buy the healthy foods that make up the state-required 35% of vending machine food, Linker said.

“We’re finding we’re disposing of [healthier foods],” he said, “because of persons not purchasing them.”

Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Nevada Soft Drink Association, said people should be allowed to choose what they want to eat.

“People can make a choice — something good for them, or something more for the moment,” Achermann said. “We’re all human beings, after all, and our diet is composed of a variety of things. Which includes soft drinks.”

At the Assembly Committee on Business and Professions two weeks ago, Assembly member Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) said he’s in favor of the bill, with one caveat:

“As an admitted Coke lover, I have to say, choice is the preferable choice,” Dickinson said. “But there are instances where what we do civicly sets the standard. In this case, I think that applies. As much as it might grieve me to walk into a state office building knowing I couldn’t get a Coke, I would know I have other alternatives that are better for me.”

Mitchell assured him that one of the accepted choices for vending machines was Diet Coke.

Dickinson gave a slight shake of his head.

“Diet Cokes are not the real thing,” he said with a smile.

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