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Battle for healthy snacks

Blind Commission has vending power, but it's slow to change
by: Christopher Onstott A “food pyramid” of a different type, made up of the fare sold to city employees and members of the public visiting the Portland Building food concession. The Oregon Commission for the Blind controls concessions and vending machines inside public buildings, and public health reformers say the commission is resisting efforts to provide healthier food.

Feasting on super-sized sodas, Big Macs and other junk food, Americans rank as the fattest people among the world's industrialized nations.

Our bloated obesity rate is causing an alarming increase in diabetes, which is the leading cause of blindness in adults.

So one might think the Oregon Commission for the Blind - which has a decades-old monopoly to provide food service and vending machines in government buildings - would lead the charge to promote healthier foods.

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Instead, nutritionists and public health advocates say the Commission for the Blind has resisted such efforts. Rather than focus on health, these critics say, the commission has worked to protect profits for 18 blind business owners who control concessions in the Multnomah County Courthouse, the Portland Building and other public facilities across Oregon.

'They are stonewalling change agents,' says Nancy Becker, a registered dietitian for the Oregon Public Health Institute and chairwoman of the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance. 'I feel like the Commission for the Blind is holding the state hostage for a bunch of candy bars that they want to sell.'

Given the link between obesity and blindness, 'Commissions for the Blind should be a natural ally on this,' says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. But in Oregon, New York and even the Atlanta cafeterias of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blind business owners are blocking campaigns to provide healthier foods in public buildings, Wootan says.

Health-minded reformers have succeeded in banning the sale of sugary soda pops and high-calorie candy bars in Oregon public schools, and Portland Parks and Recreation followed suit last year at city recreation centers. But efforts to bring healthier foods to buildings controlled by the Commission for the Blind, where tens of thousands of public employees work and members of the public visit, have been harder to secure.

Walt Reyes, director of the Oregon Commission for the Blind's Business Enterprise Program, denies that the Portland group has blocked efforts to change the food mix in public buildings.

'It's not us,' Reyes insists. 'I think that we're trying to embrace it.'

He blames blind business owners and vending machine companies that worry about lost revenue if they're forced to switch to healthier foods.

Just this month, Reyes notes, the Commission for the Blind, at the request of Multnomah County, inked a new contract requiring 50 percent of the foods sold in 19 county facilities to meet new lower-calorie, lower-sodium nutrition standards.

'In public buildings in the state, we ought to have healthy food options available to people,' says Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen. 'It seems like a no-brainer to me.'

Yet state agencies - even former Gov. Ted Kulongoski - haven't found it so easy to wrest concessions from the Commission for the Blind, though it's also a state agency.

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Depression-era law

Back in 1936, Congress passed The Randolph-Sheppard Act, giving blind persons the exclusive right to operate food concessions in federal buildings. The idea was to provide job training and business-development skills to people facing high unemployment and other barriers. Oregon and other states later passed their own versions of the law, extending the practice to state and local government buildings. Schools were exempted.

Host governments must provide the blind business owners with free rent and utilities, and don't share in the profits.

In the late-1970s, American boys drank twice as much milk as soft drinks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. By the mid-1990s, boys consumed twice as much soft drinks as milk.

Americans drank a gallon of carbonated soft drinks a week in 1997, on average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Oregon, the proportion of overweight children has tripled in the past 20 years, according to the state Obesity Task Force. In 1990, one of every 11 Oregon adults was obese. By 2006, it was one in four adults.

A 2005 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine put the obesity epidemic in stark terms. Researchers warned that the current generation of children might be the first in American history to have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

The culprit is obesity, and the diabetes and other maladies it causes.

Public health advocates first turned to schools, reasoning that children shouldn't be bombarded at school with soda pops and junk foods. They then turned to state buildings. Oregon's state work force has a higher-than-average rate of obesity, and virtually all employee health care costs are paid by the state - and its taxpayers.

Hard-won gains

One of the first skirmishes was at the Portland State Office Building in the Lloyd District, which includes many health-conscious employees of the Public Health Division.

'I would say for eight or 10 years the employees have been trying to change the food service there,' Becker says.

Finally, the blind businessman who ran the cafe gave it up to a subcontractor in January. Now he simply collects 5 percent of the profits.

Workers are thrilled with the healthier menu, Becker says, and Reyes concurs.

Yet some wonder why the Commission for the Blind, which is funded to provide vocational training for blind people and help them form businesses, didn't find a way for a blind business owner to offer healthier food at the cafe.

Several years ago, Reyes says, there was a call to stock healthier foods at the Oregon Department of Transportation building in Salem.

The Commission for the Blind agreed to designate one vending machine at the ODOT building exclusively for healthier foods, in a 90-day pilot test. 'It didn't work,' Reyes says, and the pilot was abandoned.

'If they're not going to buy the product,' says Linda Mock, administrator of the Oregon Commission for the Blind, 'it doesn't do much to put it in the machine.'

Later, the commission agreed to stock 35 percent of the snacks in ODOT's machines with products meeting a healthier standard. Sometimes that simply means substituting baked potato chips for fried chips, or adding bottled water and low-calorie sodas sweetened with artificial sugars.The 35 percent mix proved a sweet spot, attracting new customers without losing the old ones.

A couple years ago, an employee survey revealed a sizable demand for healthier foods at the Department of Justice Building in Salem. The commission ultimately agreed to add some healthier items such as dried apples and sweet corn to the machines, but it took 16 months of negotiations.

In response to then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski's 2008 Governor's Wellness Initiative, employees at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission in Sellwood lobbied to improve the food service there.

The liquor warehouse employees have only a half-hour for lunch, and there are few restaurants in walking distance, says Christie Scott, OLCC spokeswoman. The blind business manager provided soda and snack vending machines, and a coffee machine that was always broken, Scott says. The only lunch available from the machines was a powdered cup of soup mix.

'We wanted healthier options, but unfortunately the system prevented us from making that choice on our own,' Scott says.

The Commission for the Blind insisted on two rounds of taste tests to assure employees would buy the alternative foods. 'It took about two and a half years to go through that,' Scott says, even after eliciting support from the governor's office.

OLCC employees secured a blend of healthier foods in the snack machines, plus a fresh-food machine that includes sandwiches on Dave's Killer Bread, fruit plates and salads. Reyes praises the new food service, though he says sales are slow.

As with the Lloyd District cafe, the new service is being provided by an outside contractor, not the blind manager, who takes a cut of the profits.

Kulongoski prepared to issue an executive order in the final months of his term last year that would require 100 percent of the food served in state buildings to meet certain nutrition standards.

Blind managers strongly opposed the idea. Managers asked, 'How are we going to make a living if we're going to do 100 percent?' Reyes says.

Adults aren't like children; they need choices, he says. 'We should give them the opportunity to have healthy choices,' Reyes says, but '50 percent is usually the max.'

After the blind managers started a petition drive, Kulongoski dropped the idea of issuing an executive order.

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Tribune photo: Christopher Onstott • Gary "Jack" Jackson, who is visually impaired, bags up groceries at his concession stand in the Portland Building. Federal and state law gives preference to blind people to run such concessions, under a longstanding program designed to provide jobs and job training to blind people.

Services to the blind

The Oregon Commission for the Blind provides the blind business managers with occupational training, free equipment, computers, and startup inventory for the vending machines. The managers decide how to stock their machines, cafes or food concessions, though many contract with the same suppliers.

The 18 blind managers represent less than 1 percent of all the clients the commission serves, but raising their income is a high priority, Mock says. The average annual profit for the 18 blind managers is only $23,400, Reyes says, among the lowest of all the states.

Mock says she's very concerned about the public health implications of obesity, and brings carrots to work and doesn't patronize vending machines. The food concession at the Commission for the Blind offices sells bottled water, fruit and nut mixes and instant oatmeal, among other healthier options.

Multnomah County is pursuing several initiatives to combat obesity, including billboards, working with corner grocery stores, and grants to community organizations. Improving healthy options in workplaces is an important part of the strategy, says Sonia Manhas, county program manager for community wellness and prevention. County negotiators 'didn't get push back' when seeking the 50 percent provision from the Commission for the Blind, Manhas says.

Woohan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, calls a 50 percent mix of healthier foods a decent start, but says 'it shouldn't be the end point.'

Studies show vending machine operators need to promote healthier foods via better pricing and product placement, such as putting apples at eye level, to alter people's eating habits.

The Oregon Public Health Institute views the 50 percent standard as poor public policy, Becker says. When a person goes to a vending machine and sees a mix of healthier and junk foods, a little voice in their mind calls them to take the snacks they crave, the ones with high sugar, fat and sodium, over the healthier options. Many of those people are trying to lose weight.

If all the food met a higher nutritional standard, Becker says, 'a person doesn't have to have this terrible argument with themselves.'

Change is clearly coming though.

The federal government, relying partly on Oregon's school nutrition law, is moving to a national nutrition standard for snacks sold in public schools. Menu labeling for vending machines and new national nutrition standards also are coming, which could force healthier food offerings at federal buildings.

Public officials have tangled with the likes of Coca Cola and Pepsi to change the beverages sold in schools, Wootan says, but have been more reluctant to take on blind business managers because of sensitivity to people with disabilities.

But Wootan and other nutritionists say it's time blind groups joined the crusade rather than blocked it, given their interest in preventing more cases of blindness.

'We want to work with blind vendors,' Wootan says. 'But if we need to fight against them, we will.'

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• Commission's practices questioned

Four outside reviews of the Oregon Commission for the Blind have faulted its management practices over the past decade and a half.

• In March 1995, the state Audits Division found the Portland-based state agency failed to properly manage $1.75 million of public money.

• In December 2000, the Oregon Joint Legislative Audit Committee found a lack of fiscal oversight by the commission and expenditures inconsistent with good government practices.

• In October 2001, the state Audits Division found that there was a lack of controls over personal service contracts and invoice payments.

• In May 2009, the Audits Division found questionable spending of $1.4 million in public funds. Auditors found the commission didn't properly track revenues from vending machine contracts, and didn't know where many of the machines were located.

Auditors found the commission didn't seek competitive bids for $1.3 million awarded to 14 vendors over a seven-year period. The commission, in a partial defense of its practices, said verbal agreements are standard in the vending machine industry.

Auditors also found the commission spent $128,000 to set four blind people up in their own businesses, but the businesses never were launched or lasted less than six months.

Oregon Commission for the Blind Administrator Linda Mock said she agreed with some of the findings and was taking corrective actions. She disagreed with some of the other findings.

When the 2009 Legislature approved the blind commission's 2009-11 budget, it required the agency to report back to lawmakers on how it planned to rectify management problems identified in the 2009 audit.

Mock submitted a progress report to the joint legislative budget committee during the January 2010 special legislative session.

- Steve Law