By Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune reporter
December 13, 2012
Chicago Park District vending machines have ditched their candy bars for granola bars and exchanged fried potato chips for veggie chips.
Next year, Chicago Public Schools are scheduled to wave goodbye to sports drinks and hello to machines selling only low-fat milk, juice and water.
And an ordinance approved Wednesday by the City Council will place new nutrition rules on most food and drinks sold from 350 vending machines in 94 city buildings, setting restrictions on fat, calories, sugar and sodium starting next month.
It's all part of the city's push to create a healthier Chicago, an effort that some applaud but others feel is leading the city toward a "nanny state."
Many health advocates say it makes sense to set standards for machines aimed at children and at city workers whose health care is paid for with taxpayer dollars. But some say the new standards don't go far enough. Though most offerings would need to meet health guidelines, 25 percent of each machine could be stocked with sugary drinks or any kind of snack, regardless of nutrition.
"It's not appropriate to be selling a harmful product on city property with obesity, diabetes and stroke being such enormous problems in our communities," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We need to be more active in reducing consumption of this major cause of these problems."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the changes will encourage personal responsibility.
"These new vending machines will make it easier than ever before for city employees and the public to make healthy lifestyle decisions," Emanuel said earlier in a statement. "When city employees take their wellness into their own hands, we can reduce health care costs and also serve as a model for residents of Chicago when it comes to making healthy choices."
Rules for vending machines on public property vary for each area of city government.
The Chicago Park District's rules are among the most detailed — even addressing fiber content and dark chocolate. Much of that can be attributed to Colleen Lammel-Harmon, wellness manager for the parks as well as a registered dietitian.
She said vending machine sales have actually gone up since the department put sugar and calorie restrictions on the food items in its machines more than a year ago.
"We have already exceeded the forecast for sales of the new products," she said, "and in our highest month, we had $44,000 in sales."
Despite its food makeover, the Park District's beverage machines remain full of high-calorie soda and sports drinks. Lammel-Harmon said she intends to change that by spring, when the Park District will award a new beverage contract. She's aiming for requirements that keep drinks under 25 calories and sugary drink ads off the machine, she said.
Chicago Public Schools improved its food offerings in vending machines a few years ago, but last month the district approved even tighter standards for all food sold outside the cafeteria. Those include limits on fat and sugar in foods and the elimination of all drinks except low-fat milk, juice and water. Blue slushies will disappear from a la carte canteens, and sports drinks will be restricted to student athletes doing vigorous activity for at least one hour.
The city's new ordinance applies to vending machines in city-owned and -leased buildings, but not those at CTA stops. Under a contract signed with Coca-Cola in 2009, the transit authority receives 50 percent of sales revenues from the machines; its share over five years is anticipated to be $1.4 million.
Health advocates say the continued sales of full-calorie soda on city transit property and in other vending machines — even in smaller quantities — is another sign that city government is too friendly with "Big Soda."
In October, Emanuel stood with representatives from the nation's three largest soft-drink companies and the American Beverage Association, a lobbying group, to announce a $5 million soda industry-sponsored fitness competition between city of Chicago employees and those from San Antonio. Last month, the Chicago Park District announced that Coca-Cola would sponsor a $3 million boot camp fitness program taught by military veterans.
Michele Simon, a health advocate and lawyer for food watchdog Eat Drink Politics, said she believes these million-dollar grants are meant to head off soda taxes and similar anti-obesity initiatives that other cities have attempted, most notably New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's limits on large sugary drinks.
"They are buying silence," she said. "I think they are directly connected to what we saw in New York City. They don't want any other mayors to even think about doing what Bloomberg did. So it's no surprise they would go to the Second City to ensure that this mayor took a different tack."
Bloomberg isn't the only big-city mayor to clash with soda manufacturers. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino banned full-calorie sodas and their advertising from all city buildings last year. And Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who has advocated soda taxes in his city, refused to take soda company money for a municipal anti-obesity program.
"Taking money from Big Soda to fight obesity is like taking money from the NRA to fight guns," Nutter wrote on Twitter. "You can't buy this City Hall."
By contrast, Emanuel has thanked the American Beverage Association and the makers of Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Snapple at recent news conferences for their generous support. His health plan for the city "includes engaging outside partners to make critical health initiatives a reality," said Caroline Weisser of the mayor's office.
Christopher Gindlesperger, spokesman for the beverage association, said the partnerships with Chicago and San Antonio are about supporting communities, not currying political favor.
"Any critic who suggests that those cities can be bought should take that up with Mayor Emanuel and Mayor (Julian) Castro," he said. "They are deeply committed to promoting healthy, balanced and active lifestyles. And we agree with them that it takes all segments of society … coming together to formulate a comprehensive solution to a complex issue like obesity."
Lammel-Harmon declined to comment directly on Coca-Cola's sponsorship of a parks fitness program, saying only that the district aimed to train children "to reach first for options such as water, low-calorie beverages and 100 percent juices."
Though the city's new vending machine rules may strike some as too timid, they strike others as overreaching. Cherylyn Harley LeBon, co-chair of Project 21, a network of black conservatives affiliated with the National Center for Public Policy Research, wrote as much in a recent blog.
"Taking a page from fellow mayor Michael Bloomberg's playbook, Emanuel is imposing new rules on what people can get from vending machines by the only means he can right now — sticking it to his own workforce," she wrote this month.
In an interview, Harley LeBon explained: "We live in a free-market society, not North Korea. … Adults are capable of making their own decision, and I think it's a problem when the mayor thinks he can define for us what is junk and healthy food."
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair, who testified in favor of a failed municipal soda tax earlier this year, said he believes the city is striking a moderate tone by setting rules yet allowing sales of some less-healthy options.
"It's OK to have a treat once in a while," he said. "But at the end of the day, we are emphasizing for city residents that it's important to make the healthy choice most of the time."
Choucair also noted that the new rules restrict high-calorie drinks to 12 ounces and require healthier items to be placed at eye level and priced competitively with less healthy items.
Anti-obesity campaigners have long stressed the importance of changing the food environment — especially when it comes to accessibility and marketing. But others, including Emanuel, have argued that personal responsibility is key to making health progress. Choucair said he thinks both are important.
"We've been very clear about the role of personal responsibility," he said. "We all have to be educated around making the right decisions. But at the same time, we have been advancing policies, systems and environmental change to make it easier to make the healthier choices the default choices."
So what will the health commissioner be snacking on when the new offerings arrive in city buildings?
"I think I would have a seltzer water and a small bag of nuts," Choucair said.