The city of Columbia is taking steps to make snacking in city parks, buildings and public spaces healthier.
The City Council unanimously has directed city manager Teresa Wilson to come up with a list of healthier alternatives to the traditional chips, sodas, candy and cookies that now make up the bulk of vending machine snacks. The city won’t be eliminating these snacks; just augmenting them with healthier choices.
And the city, led by the parks and recreation department, is making healthier choices available when it has events catered.
“We know how important it is to have healthy lifestyles, and the food we put into our bodies is, of course, a major component of that,” said Mayor Steve Benjamin. “I’m excited that our city will be making changes that help our residents collectively and individually.”
The Healthy Vending and Food Service Policy expands the city’s existing vending machine policy to include food and beverages provided by the city for its 2,300 employees as well as guests at programs, events and meetings.
The program seeks to adhere to the American Heart Associations’ Healthy Workplace Food and Beverage Toolkit. The heart association notes that approximately 32 percent of residents in South Carolina are obese, and obesity costs the state $8.5 billion each year in health care costs.
“This policy will help reduce those numbers and provide a stronger nutritional standard when it comes to our vending machines as well as the food and drinks that are served at our events, programs and meetings,” council member Tameika Isaac Devine said.
The Eat Smart Move More SC organization is also assisting in the program.
Wilson and the city’s employee wellness committee have a year to come up with healthy alternatives for the vending machines, and three years to develop a plan for catered events. But the parks and recreation department has already started adding healthier alternatives to its 37 vending machines, the biggest number in city government.
For instance, this week at the Drew Park Wellness Center, vegetable sticks, dried fruit and Nature Valley bars shared space in the vending machine with pork rinds and chocolate chip cookies.
Also, some catered events are now offering healthier fare, said parks and recreation spokeswoman Shireese Bell.
“When we cater events like City Council meetings, we’ll do things like serve baked chicken instead of fried chicken,” she said.
Jo Milyhan, who had just finished a workout at the Drew Wellness Center on Tuesday, said she wished the vending machine policy would go farther and eliminate all unhealthy snacks and remove the temptations to eat junk food.
“If I have to chose between M&M’s and Nature Valley, I’m going to take M&M’s every time,” said Milyhan, a teacher, real estate agent and model. “If the things cost the same I’m going to choose what makes me happy.”
But Herbert Scott Jr., who was visiting an employee at City Hall on Tuesday, said people should have a right to choose how they snack.
He works at a pharmacy that has vending machines, “and nobody complains about what I have in there. People can drop their coins in there and get what they want.”
Here are some guidelines from the American Heart Association
▪ Make healthy changes to vending machines, cafeterias, meetings and events
▪ Identify restaurants and caterers that provide healthier food and beverage choices
▪ Provide more fruits and vegetables.
▪ Provide more fiber-rich whole grains.
▪ Provide reasonable portion sizes.
▪ Ensure that clean, cool water is always available at no cost.
▪ Offer sparkling water instead of soda.
▪ Offer decaffeinated as well as caffeinated coffee and tea.
▪ Offer juices that provide more beneficial nutrients, such as orange and grapefruit.