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Why Healthful Vending Machines Might Hurt The Blind

NPR icon by Deena Prichep
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Danny Johnston

Look in any vending machine, and you can find plenty of snacks with dubious nutritional profiles. Take the ones in the state capitol building in Salem, Ore.

"We've got a lot of Cheetos, and Pop-Tarts, and candy bars, and cookies and things like that," says state representative Alissa Keny-Guyer.

She notes that the obesity epidemic has a direct impact on the state. So she introduced a bill to have vending machines on state property switch over to all healthy options. Like many public health advocates, Keny-Guyer stresses that she's not trying to dictate what people eat — just make it easier for them to make a healthy choice when they're pressed for time or seeking a snack. But it turns out that this public health campaign impacts an unexpected group: the blind.

In 1936, Congress gave blind vendors priority to operate vending and concessions on federal property with the Randolph Sheppard Act. States then extended the same treatment to state buildings.

Why? To create jobs for the blind. And finding employment is still a struggle for the blind today — their unemployment rate is 70 percent. Which means that the jobs and income from the Randolph Sheppard Act still matter.

"Two-thousand three hundred blind entrepreneurs go to work every day to feed their families because of the Randolph Sheppard Act," says Kevan Worley, director of the National Association of Blind Merchants. "That's significant. It's the most successful employment program for the blind ever conceived."

Worley says the program does about $700 million in annual sales, with participating vendors earning a $46,000 median salary. And now blind vendors are worried that if junk food in the vending machines in replaced with healthier fare , they'll take their business elsewhere. But whether this actually happens is unclear — there's some evidence that mandating 50 percent or more healthy food in vending machines harms business.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been working together with blind vendors and vending machine companies to find ways to positively impact offerings and selections without impact the blind vendors' bottom line. Together, they're finding snacks that are affordable and actually fit in the existing vending machines, and looking at ways to highlight these options (such as little green tags that can inform and motivate consumers).

Joel Kimmons is a nutrition scientist who worked on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vending machine recommendations. "Do vending machines contribute negatively to the overall diet?" he asked. "I think the question can be turned around, and you should ask can vending machines contribute positively to the overall diet."

The Oregon healthy vending legislation has gone through a overhaul — instead of mandating 100 percent healthy snacks, the bill now calls for the creation of a task force to gather all interested parties together.

And blind vendors, like Worley, hope that this collaborative approach will be the best way forward. "You know, I understand, if we don't reduce health costs, that's going to be a huge economic impact. But I don't want to balance the health of the nation on the backs of blind Americans. We can develop ways to have our cake and eat it, too."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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