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At the public hospital and sports centers, vending machines are healthier

on November 13, 2011

Snickers bars at the county hospital? No more.

Nor will you be able to find them at the city’s community centers.

The city’s Recreation Department — following the lead of Contra Costa County’s health department — has replaced all the vending machines in its community centers with new, energy-efficient ones holding snacks and drinks that have lower calorie counts and no artificial trans-fats.

Between this month and last, the county has done the same with healthier foods in the vending machines at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and at all of the county health department offices.

This means no more regular soda and no Snickers bars. There are still Pop-Tarts, but the bags contain just one, not two.

“Our doctors started seeing kids and their families coming into their offices with junk food that they’d bought in our lobby — so that was a problem,” said Tracey Rattray, the director of the Community Wellness and Prevention Program at Contra Costa County Health Services.

“We felt if we’re giving our patients advice to be healthy, we can’t be selling junk food in our facilities,” Rattray said.

In Richmond, the new vending machines have been installed at the Parchester Village Community Center, the Nevin Community Center and the Booker T. Anderson Community Center. A new beverage machine has been installed at The Plunge, according to Alicia Nightengale, the City of Richmond’s Community Development Project Manager. The new machines will not cost the city or county any money.

This summer, the prior vendor’s contract with the city was ending, so the city put out a request for proposals for a vending-machine supplier who could meet the new county health requirements.

They got one response, from Tamalpais Vending, a Richmond company that is also one of two supplying the new vending machines for the county.

The vending machine guidelines limit calorie and saturated fat levels and ban artificial trans fats. Snacks can’t exceed 250 calories, for example. Drinks can’t have extra sugar, but diet sodas are okay.

The vending machines at the hospital and county health offices were installed about a month ago after the department held taste tests of potential new snacks that met the new guidelines.

“At Contra Costa Health Services, several years ago we implemented a 50-percent healthy vending policy in response to the obesity crisis,” Rattray said, referring to an older policy requiring half of the vending machines in the health department’s offices offer healthier choices. But, “As the health department, we felt we need to walk our talk and stock 100 percent healthy beverages and snacks in our machines.”

According to Rattray, not everybody is happy about the new vending machines, but she emphasized that employees are allowed to bring whatever food they wish into work.

“We have heard that [some employees] don’t want these machines … that they feel like they’re not being given a choice of what to eat,” Rattray said. “There’s a push-back, and our response to that is: ‘We are the health department — it’s our job to provide a healthy environment for our patients and our staff, and you are welcome to bring whatever types of foods you would like with you into the department.’”

“We don’t want to control what you eat,” she added. “We’re controlling what we sell.”

Ofelia Alvarez, a buyer with the city’s Finance Department, said new community center vending machines are also energy efficient — they go into sleep mode when no one is using them, and they turn off at night.

Also to fight obesity the city is hosting several new sports programs at its community centers. The Recreation Department is still taking sign-ups for an instructional basketball program for children ages 6-12 that began last month and for an instructional soccer program that lasts until Dec. 14. A bicycle trip at the Point Pinole Regional Park for children and teenagers ages 9-17 is planned for Nov. 16.

Parents can sign their children up at the Nevin Community Center or at the main recreation complex at 3230 Macdonald Avenue.

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