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Multipronged city agenda promotes food and beverages with less sugar, salt and fat

By Bechara Choucair, MD

It’s finally springtime and you’re planning to lose a couple of pounds before heading to the lake to enjoy the sun. While at work, you head to the break room to see what vending machine snacks might suit your healthier goals. What you find are sugary soft drinks, and processed snacks high in fat and sodium.

Why are  there not more healthy options for you?

Maybe there will be soon, however. Mayor Emanuel has launched the Healthy Vending Challenge, which encourages Chicago’s businesses and organizations to provide healthier food and beverage options in vending machines. The Challenge asks organizations to change their current vending offerings to include items lower in sugar, salt and fat to align with guidelines based on the American Heart Association’s healthy food procurement standards.

Interested organizations can visit the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) website to access the Healthy Vending Challenge toolkit and participation instructions. Once a business or organization has met the requirements of the Challenge, it will receive an official certificate to document its success.

The Challenge aligns with the City’s healthy vending policy, unveiled by Mayor Emanuel in November 2012 and approved by the Chicago City Council in December. According to the policy, at least 75% of all food and beverages in every vending machine in City-owned buildings will include healthier, affordable options. Already, 40% of the new vending machines have been installed in City-owned buildings, and will reach 100% over the next couple of months.

When the Park District installed healthy vending machines, people responded by purchasing more healthy options. At the end of the first year of implementation, the Parks actually beat revenue expectations with the new machines.

Five large Chicago-based organizations—the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Vanguard Health System and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois—have expressed their support and intent to sign on to the Healthy Vending Challenge. These organizations operate dozens of vending machines in neighborhoods across the city.

The Challenge was created as part of Healthy Places, a partnership between CDPH and the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC), and is part of the City’s Healthy Chicago agenda, a comprehensive plan to make our City the healthiest in the nation. The plan identifies 16 health outcome targets and 12 priority areas including obesity prevention.

With recent surveys showing the prevalence of overweight or obese adults in Chicago is now roughly 63%, a large citywide effort is underway to “green” food deserts where access to healthy foods is limited and to encourage healthier living among residents. As part of this initiative, CDPH and its community partners have secured commitments for 17 new or planned grocery stores in communities with limited access to healthy food. New outlets include Aldi, Save A Lot, Walmart and Roundy’s. CDPH also has worked with owners of existing stores, including Walgreens, to add produce and other healthy options at 19 locations. A pilot project CDPH developed encourages neighborhood corner stores in Humboldt Park and Englewood to offer more produce and healthier food choices.

While implementing programs and services, CDPH has also influenced policy change. For instance, the passage of Chicago’s first urban agriculture ordinance gives residents and businesses more options for community gardens. These community gardens are now permitted to be as large as 25,000 square feet; new urban agriculture businesses have expanded to include vertical farms, aquaponics and apiaries. In June 2012, an ordinance was passed to allow produce carts to operate throughout Chicago. The ordinance requires that at least 50% of every licensed produce merchant’s business operates within a community with limited healthy food options.

Decreasing the availability of products that are high in calories and low in nutritional value, while improving access to healthy food and beverages are key steps in helping individuals make better choices.

Medical practices and health care facilities can get on board by installing a healthy vending machine, so the next time you’re in the break room hankering for a snack, you’ll be more confident about the choices you make.

For more information, please visit the CDPH website . Also, you can follow the department on social media on Twitter @ChiPublicHealth and Facebook at

Dr. Choucair is commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health. He was appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley to the position on November 25, 2009.

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