D.C. lawmaker wants to mandate snack options for govt. workers

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Local,DC,Alan Blinder,Vincent Gray

A D.C. lawmaker is seeking to curb the availability of junk food in government buildings throughout the District by requiring the city's 4,000 federal and municipal government vending machines to stock healthier options.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh's legislation calls for at least half of the offerings in the vending machines to carry a "healthy" designation under a standard set by the mayor.

"How many times have you gone to a vending machine and all there is is candy and chips and soda?" Cheh said. "We're not prescribing what you choose, but you ought to have the opportunity to choose something that's healthy."

And Cheh, who has jokingly described the proposal as her "broccoli-in-the-vending-machine bill," said the changes could end up saving taxpayers big money if workers avoid conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Why District control?
Under the federal Randolph-Sheppard Blind Vending Facility Program, the District manages vending machines in federal buildings throughout the city.

"It makes workers healthier, it makes them happier, and it also cuts down on costs for health care," she said.

While Cheh's measure has drawn early support from key lawmakers, some rank-and-file employees were less enthusiastic.

"We already have choices. We have trail mix and Fig Newtons," said one employee, who asked not to be named. "I enjoy eating Snickers and Cheetos."

Along with the vending guidelines, Cheh's measure also calls for D.C. to develop policies to promote good health, like "opportunities for employees to exercise at their desks and offices."SClBJohnnie Walker, a national representative for the American Federation of Government Employees' District 14, questioned how the city would implement those policies.

"We would love to promote healthy alternatives, but none of the employers have gyms or workout equipment," Walker said. SClBDespite being a D.C. measure, the proposal has the potential to affect far more than the District government's workforce: By including vending machines in federal buildings, the measure would change the choices of hundreds of thousands of workers and visitors.

And although the region ranks among the nation's most fit, the District still reported in 2011 that nearly one in four of its adults were obese.

Maryland and Virginia, states that send thousands of federal workers into the city, reported even higher obesity rates that year.

Cheh's proposal came amid a national debate about the proper role of government in regulating food options, though it did not go nearly as far as the policies that leaders in other major cities have sought lately.

Chicago moved last month to require that at least 75 percent of items in vending machines housed inside city buildings be healthy, and New York has approved a limited ban on soft drink sales.SClBCheh has long wanted to nudge District residents -- especially children -- toward healthier eating.

In 2010, Cheh sought to implement an excise tax on nondiet soft drinks, a proposal that a massive industry lobbying effort helped defeat.

She said Wednesday that she may try again in the future.

"I've been thinking about that, but I'm not ready yet to go to battle stations about it," she said. "It's still on my radar."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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