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Bill calls for healthier options in vending machines in Montgomery County

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (ABC7) — A majority of the Montgomery County Council has expressed support for a bill that would increase the amount of healthy snacks and drinks available in county vending machines.

Councilman George Leventhal (D) is the lead sponsor of the bill, with Councilman Craig Rice (D) signing on as a co-sponsor.

As the bill reads, all vending machines located on county property would need to be stocked with 50 percent healthy options if a vending service contract is entered on or after July 1, 2017. That figure would increase to 65 percent for all service contracts entered on or after July 1, 2018.

The county says it currently has 168 vending machines in buildings such as libraries, health centers, firehouses, police stations and more.

“We want Montgomery County to be the healthiest county in America," Leventhal stated during a press conference Tuesday. "We lead by example."

According to the bill's language, to qualify as a "healthy" item, food and drinks must meet a number of criteria, including be approved by the American Heart Association. The healthier items must be displayed in a way that is readily apparent, stocked in high-profile slots and priced comparatively (or less) than the unhealthy alternatives.

“How counter it is to do all of the work that you would put in on, say, an orbital stepper for half-an-hour only to then undue it with taking down one of these beverages," Rice said while holding up a plastic bottle of root beer. "We don't allow soda in my house."

Rice and his counterparts highlighted that this legislation comes amid a recent study showing 25 percent of Montgomery County children are overweight. The county has also recorded a sharp 72 percent increase in its employee healthcare costs between fiscal year 2006 ($83.3 million) and fiscal year 2017 ($143.1 million).

“This bill is a no-brainer for anybody except, perhaps, a lobbyist for the soda companies," said Lindsey Parsons with Real Food For Kids Montgomery, a non-profit agency, which advocates for healthy eating options for children.

And Parsons was spot on. Ellen Valentino with the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association contends that consumers should have free will when selecting their own food. Valentino shared those thoughts during a public hearing on the matter Tuesday.

“We don’t think heavy hands are the way to push people into new directions in terms of the choices they want," Valentino stated. "Calorie counts are at the tip of everybody’s fingers now. I mean the products are amazing coming into the market, so not everyone needs a punch in the eye.”

In 2015, Howard County passed similar vending machine legislation. Prince George's County is reportedly also looking into the idea.

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