Massachusetts lawmakers enthused about bill to make vending machines more healthy

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BOSTON >> Pointing to endorsements from two legislative committees and a "breakthrough" in addressing opposition, supporters say this could be the year that Massachusetts lawmakers pass a bill requiring vending machines on state property to stock foods like yogurt, fruit and nuts alongside chips, candy and other standbys.

"Really, the reason behind it is we just want to make sure there's healthy choices offered," said Allyson Perron, the American Heart Association's senior government relations director. "It doesn't mean the whole vending machine has to be 100 percent healthy. We're not taking away people's Coke and Snickers when they want it."

As the July 31 end of formal sessions inches closer, advocates and volunteers from the American Heart Association gathered at the Statehouse Monday to lobby lawmakers in support of legislation and budget items they said promote healthy eating and physical activity.

Among the association's priorities is a bill that would require any food or drinks sold in vending machines on state property to "be limited to food and beverage items that comply with the nutritional standards" that would be set by the Department of Public Health commissioner.

The bill lays out three different sets of nutrition and food procurement standards that the state regulations would have to meet or exceed. Perron said the three sets of guidelines range from requiring that all the food options be healthy to 30 percent healthy on the low end. The American Heart Association, she said, would advocate for a middle ground of 50 percent healthy.

The bill (H 3988), a redrafted version of legislation filed by Rep. Stephen Kulik in January 2015, was given favorable recommendations by the Joint Committee on Public Health and the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. It is now before the House Ways and Means Committee. Kulik is vice chair of House Ways and Means.

This is the second session the bill has been filed, Perron said. In 2014, no further action on the bill was taken after it was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee in late July.

Formal sessions end for this year on July 31, giving lawmakers less than 10 weeks to act on major legislation. Perron said the approaching deadline makes her "a little bit nervous."

"In theory, it should be a non-controversial bill so we might be able to do it in informal session," she said. "I feel much better about it being done in formal session. There's always some pushback by industry, potentially, but hopefully not."

Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said that healthy foods should be accessible and affordable so that people are encouraged to choose them. He said the vending machines bill was "not asking a lot."

"I think we do have a breakthrough this session in terms of some opposition that we've encountered that I think we've addressed," Lewis said. "So I'm really optimistic that this could be the legislative session that we pass this bill."

Bernie Dennis, an Acton resident who served as American Heart Association chairman from 2013 to 2015, mentioned a Massachusetts Turnpike rest area he's been stopping at for years as an example of growing desire for nutritious food choices. The rest area features three fast-food stands, Dennis said: McDonald's, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Fresh City, where the menu includes salads, vegan options and smoothies.

"When we first went there, right, there was nobody at Fresh City and everybody was at McDonald's, and now when we go there, it's pretty much evenly divided across the rest area," Dennis said. "That's my informal poll that people are of the opinion that they want to make healthy choices. Certainly there's a long way to go, but there is traction."


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