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Emanuel seeks to make city vending machine fare healthier

Vending machines.  |  AP

Vending machines. | AP

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Updated: December 15, 2012 6:26AM

Junk food junkies may soon have a tough time getting their daily fix at vending machines located at 90 buildings owned and leased by the city of Chicago.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to limit their offerings to healthy snacks and lower-calorie beverages, starting in January, when a new vending machine contract takes effect.

No longer would the company determine the line-up of products sold at 157 snack machines and 198 beverage machines located at government buildings.

The city would establish strict and first-ever guidelines for fat, sugar and calorie content.

Beverage machines would require that: only 25 percent of cold beverages sold be “high-calorie;” the remaining 75 percent of cold beverages contain 25 calories or less-per-eight ounces; hot beverages be limited to 25 calories and that all types of beverages except water and seltzer be limited to 12 ounces.

Regulations governing the 157 snack machines would be equally stringent. They would require that at least 75 percent of the food options sold in each machine contain 250 calories or less. At least five of the items sold in each machine would be required to contain 250 mg or less of sodium-per-serving. And at least one item in each machine would have to be gluten-free and without nuts.

The prices for healthier food and drink items could not exceed the prices charged for less healthy food and beverage items, under the ordinance that Emanuel plans to introduce at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

The Chicago Public Schools recently announced its own new Healthy Snack and Wellness Policy aimed at combating student obesity.

“These new vending machines will make it easier than ever before for city employees and the public to make healthy lifestyle choices,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the new vending machine rules.

“When city employees take their wellness into their own hands, we can reduce health care costs and also serve as a model for the residents of Chicago when it comes to making health choices.”

Health Commissioner Dr. Bechara Choucair said he’s all for the vending machine restrictions expected to be imposed on the Compass Group, which replaced ACE Coffee Bar, Inc. as the city’s vending machine operator after a public procurement process.

“We can help combat a variety of health problems — including obesity — by prioritizing wellness and this new vending machine initiative does just that,” Choucair was quoted as saying.

“Improving access to healthy foods and beverages and decreasing the availability of foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value is an important first step and helps individuals make the choices that keep them healthy.”

Earlier this year, health advocates and retailers squared off on a plan proposed by the chairman of the City Council’s Health Committee to curb soaring obesity rates by taxing Chicago consumers of soda pop, energy drinks and other sugary beverages — by anywhere from 15 to 30 cents a container to a penny-an-ounce.

Emanuel has made it clear that he’s not interested in taxing sugary beverages or imposing a New York City-style ban on over-sized beverages.

Instead, he has convinced the beverage industry to offer a $5 million prize to the winner of a head-on competition between city employees in Chicago and San Antonio to determine which work force can best improve their “wellness” profile.

The vending machine industry also vowed to launch a so-called “Calories Count” program to increase the availability of lower-calorie beverages in city vending machines; display calorie counts for each vending machine choice and display a “Calories Count” logo on each machine to remind consumers to make smart choices.

Earlier this week, the Coca-Cola Foundation upped the ante. The foundation agreed to bankroll a $3 million Chicago Park District program that will seek to combat obesity and the chronic health problems it causes by offering nutrition education and exercise classes run by returning veterans.

The proposed vending machine regulations are more of the same: an effort to steer people to healthier choices without using taxes and government mandates to change behavior.

It’s the same philosophy that gave birth to Emanuel’s plan to raise monthly health insurance premiums by $50 for city employees who fail to participate in a “wellness program” to manage chronic health problems driving a majority of the city’s skyrocketing health care costs.

Emanuel hopes to save $20 million in 2012 and $240 million over fours years — by riding herd over costly, but controllable problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and heavy smoking.

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