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Aldermen debate ‘Muscle Milk,’ rice cakes, V-8 in vending machine proposal

Updated: December 11, 2012 5:10PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to sharply restrict the sale of junk food and sugary drinks at city vending machines cleared a City Council committee Tuesday, but only after aldermen had a healthy discussion about becoming the food police.

“With the snacks, you looked at the amount of sodium. And the same was not done with the beverages — and I know that V-8 is one of the highest sodium juices on the market. Can you tell me why?” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th).

Jennifer Herd, a senior health policy analyst for the Department of Public Health, said the city followed “standard best practices” used across the country and those do not “account for sodium in the beverages.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) was intrigued by the fact that a “tracking device” in new vending machines to be installed within 60 days by the Compass Group will allow the city to keep tabs on items sold.

Noting that 25 percent of the items will remain junk food, Reilly said, “What if this tracking device is showing that folks are all still buying just that 25 percent …. Do you just make bigger machines and people can keep buying more” unhealthy stuff?

Joel Vieyra, an assistant commissioner for the Department of Fleet and Facilities Management, said, “It would just mean that the vendor would have to service the machines with greater regularity.”

Ald. Jim Balcer (11th) asked about Muscle Milk, one of his high-protein favorites.

“I drink that all the time. I just think protein drinks are a good thing to have — low in fat, low in sodium, no sugar. High in protein,” he said.

Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) replied, “That’ll be for one sale. That Muscle Milk is horrible. That’s not for women.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (36th) said he “applauds what we’re trying to do,” but the city may have a tough time finding healthy snacks and beverages to stock its vending machines.

“Welch’s fruit snacks? Loaded with sugar. Diet pop? Many health experts say it’s poison. … I don’t think you could find any nutritionist or health experts who say these things are healthier,” Sposato said.

Austin added, “I don’t think I’m gonna choose any rice cakes. But, there is an individual who would like to have rice cakes. That individual does have a choice. That’s what the contractor is trying to do: provide us with a choice of being able to say, ‘This bag of Dorito’s is healthy.’ And we know we’re lying, but we’re gonna lie to ourself.”

The mayor’s plan would make it tougher for junk food addicts to get their daily fix at the city’s 157 snack machines and 198 machines that sell beverages.

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.

Snack machines 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.

Vieyra said city vending machines currently generate $150,000 to $200,000 in annual revenue.

Under Compass, the city will get 20.2 percent of gross revenues from snack machines and 30.2 percent of gross revenues from beverage machines, along with a $25,000 advance commission.

“We’re expecting that to go down slightly initially, only because it might take a little while for people to sort of get accustomed to healthy vending,” Vieyra said.

“But then, the experience that the Park District has had is that sales kind of picked up as soon as people were exposed more to these types of products.”

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