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Originally published February 13, 2013 at 10:18 AM | Page modified February 13, 2013 at 10:14 PM

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Healthful choices proposed for vending machines in Seattle city offices, buildings

The city of Seattle would have to stock at least half of every vending machine in city buildings and offices with healthful foods under a bill before the City Council.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Many of the deep-fried potato chips and candy bars that have given city workers an afternoon energy boost for decades would be replaced by rice cakes and granola bars under an ordinance being considered by the Seattle City Council.

The council and Mayor Mike McGinn are proposing to stock half of every vending machine in city buildings and offices with healthful foods — nonfat milk, for example, instead of soda.

The city is following the lead of the federal government and the King County Health Board in adopting strategies to address soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. Public institutions and organizations are being encouraged to offer healthful snack options for working people who typically eat half of their meals away from home.

As one city information sheet puts it: “With healthy vending, we can easily choose snacks with great taste, crunch and the natural sweetness of whole foods.”

Skeptics point to the experience of Seattle Public Schools, which saw revenues for student activities plummet when healthful options were substituted in high-school vending machines for chips, candy and sugary soft drinks. Students simply walked off campus and bought the junk food they craved.

“They can put healthy foods in the vending machines, but they can’t make people buy them,” said Paul Guppy, research director for the Washington Policy Center, which is often critical of government overreach.

Guppy said that although he is usually a “limited government conservative,” he supports restrictions on school vending machines “because they’re government-run and because they’re serving children.”

And, he said, the city is perfectly within its rights to send a good-health message with its vending-machine selections.

But do grown-ups need to be told the nutritional difference between a carrot stick and a peanut butter cup?

City Councilmember Richard Conlin, who is sponsoring the vending-machine legislation, said, “That’s the point. To give our employees a choice.”

Conlin pointed to the Parks and Recreation Department’s success in introducing fewer fatty and sugary foods into community centers and park facility vending machines in 2009.

Parks took a gradual approach, starting at just one community center, expanding to about half, and in 2010 requiring that all its vending machines carry entirely healthful choices. Revenues dropped for a while in 2009, but they have returned to their previous levels, said Dewey Potter, parks spokeswoman.

Potter said the available selection of healthful snacks has improved and expanded. It now includes low-fat Cheez-Its, baked potato chips, granola bars and dried fruit. Drinks include diet soda, nonfat and 1 percent milk, water and 100 percent fruit juice.

She said the public understands the link between their health and what they eat.

“People aren’t complaining much, even in our own building where they initially complained bitterly,” she said.

If adopted, the city guidelines would require that half of all vending-machine selections come from the “healthiest” or “healthier” categories as defined by the King County Healthy Vending Guidelines. Healthiest includes baby carrots, fresh broccoli, dried fruit, whole-grain crackers, rice cakes and pita. Healthier includes baked chips, fruit in light syrup and low-sodium nuts.

The remaining 50 percent could be regular chips, candy, pastries and sweetened drinks including tea, coffee, fruit drinks and sodas.

The City Council started work on the vending-machine ordinance last year but ran in to what Conlin called the “anarchic state of vending machines in the city.” As with many city operations, management of vending machines is decentralized. The city didn’t have a clue how many machines it had or which departments held contracts.

For the most part, the city doesn’t make a profit on its vending machines. Nor does it expect implementation of the new guidelines to cost the city any money.

The objective, Conlin said, is employee wellness.

“We want to give them healthy choices. We want to reduce their medical costs. We want them to be in better health.”

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 lthompson@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter:@lthompsontimes

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