Santa Clara County, California to set Healthful Nutrition Standards

I live in San Jose. It’s a city of almost one million people. If you don’t know it, San Jose accounts for most of the population of Santa Clara County. Most of Silicon Valley resides in this county. You may have heard of some of the corporations that reside here: Apple, Cisco Systems, Intel, HP, eBay, Netflix. The list is almost endless. There is a lot of money in this area. And while there are a lot of vegetarian and vegan eateries in which the more-educated and health-conscious can chow down, people here seem to be getting fatter, just like the rest of America.

County facilities themselves have not been doing a great job of limiting junk –or at least junky – food. Until now, that is. The county board of supervisors is embarking on a policy to reduce the county’s role as an enabler of people’s bad dietary habits. The idea is to set nutritional standards for any edibles or potables that are offered at county facilities.

Can vending machines become a source of good nutrition?

Vending machines at government facilities already have a 50-percent minimum healthful content requirement. In a pilot program, officials had a vending contractor load one machine in the county building with only items meeting the better nutrition standards. Over the course of a year this machine generated the most revenue by far of any machine in the building. While revenues from all other vending devices dropped, the income from the pilot machine more than compensated.

Starting next July, jails, probation facilities, and even the county fair will have to clean up – or at least tidy up – their acts. In an article in February 28, 2012 San Jose Mercury News, reporter Tracy Seipel quotes Supervisor Ken Yeager, who introduced the regulation: “When you think of how any meals are served to people under custodial care, particularly younger people, and in hospitals, why not give them more nutritional foods?”

Santa Clara County serves four million jail meals annually. The senior nutrition program serves 1.2 million meals. County probation provides about half a million meals and the medical center sells almost that many in its eateries in addition to the 300,000 it provides patients. In all, the county generates about six million meals.

Even event producers at the fair grounds will have to bring in food concessions that offer selections meeting the more healthful guidelines.

California is famous – and sometimes notorious – for being innovative. In keeping with that tradition, this local reform could set the standard – or at least start the ball rolling – toward better nutrition nationwide.

This isn’t the first time the county has been at the forefront of healthy living. In 2005, it adopted a healthful food and beverage vending policy. In 2008, it adopted a very effective menu-labeling ordinance for chain restaurants. In 2010 the state passed a similar menu labeling law.

Also in 2010, Santa Clara County became the first in the United States to enact an ordinance requiring minimum nutrition standards for food offered as part of restaurant so-called “kids’ meals.”

Funding for the new program is paid for by a 2010 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the County Public Health Department. The new nutritional standards are part of the county’s obesity-prevention efforts that support public health goals of reducing obesity, increasing physical activity and improving nutrition.[*]

According to county public health officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, more than half the adults and more than a quarter of the middle and high school students in Santa Clara County are overweight or obese.

The idea behind this new policy is to offer better nutrition options for everyone. That means hamburgers and pizzas offered at county venues will contain more healthful ingredients. Vending machines will contain fewer fried chips, sugary sodas and candy.

Among the nutritional standards are:

  • Increased  fresh fruit and vegetable offerings
  • Milk with one percent or lower fat content
  • Lower fat-content foods
  • No beverages with added sugar
  • Minimal or zero processed foods
  • Low sodium content
  • Reduced amounts of fried foods
  • No trans fats

As a commissioner on the county’s volunteer Advisory Commission on Consumer Affairs (I do not speak for the commission in this article) I applaud this progressive and meaningful effort.

Now perhaps someone can explain this to me: The state does not charge sales tax for potato chips, candy, and 10-percent fruit juice beverages because they are “foods”, but it does charge taxes on vitamins, nutritional supplements and over-the-counter remedies like aspirin, antacids and allergy medicines.

It’s my hope that the county in which I live will set a new standard for California and, subsequently, the country, by being a role model for government sponsored nutrition programs. With wise leadership, such efforts should cost governments virtually nothing and save them money in the long run by reducing healthcare costs.

I can dream can’t I?



[*] For anyone interested in the details of the nutrition standards, here you go:

http://www.sccgov.org/keyboard/attachments/BOS%20Agenda/2012/February%2028,%202012/203860359/TMPKeyboard203876916.pdf

 

Coupons: Money Makers or Cash Costers?

Lots of folks use coupons. They save you money, right? Sometimes. Manufacturers of retail items, with the exception of the U.S. auto industry, have typically been pretty smart. So they are not giving away the store. The idea behind coupons is to lure you to their products, or to create demand for new ones.

Photo: U-Haul Trucking Rental

I seldom use coupons because they are usually for stuff I don’t need, stuff that’s overpriced to begin with, or “foods” that are bad for me.

The Consumer Gal and I enjoy tea. My wife especially likes herbal teas. I recently came across a one-dollar coupon in the Sunday newspaper for Celestial Seasonings tea. When I saw that my supermarket “club” card price gave a dollar discount, I piled on my coupon and got the $2.99 box of tea for one buck.

On the other hand, I have a one-dollar coupon for “WhoNu?” cookies. It’s a new line of cookies from Suncore Products. They‘re marketed as a nutrition-rich treat, containing fiber, protein, nutrients, yada, yada, yada. My Consumer Guy curiosity (and my sweet tooth) has gotten the best of me. So I will take that tooth to the market and check it out. But here is the caveat. I’ll check the after-coupon price. If I’m not going to save a buck compared to my normal gamut of after-dinner, low-fat goodies, I ain’t buying. And I’m not sure that WhoNus are low in fat.

The primary source of food in our home is Trader Joe’s. Excellent prices and a great array of healthful, vegetarian items are why. TJ sells a huge percentage of stuff bearing its own brand, which allows it to keep prices down. As for name brands, TJ accepts coupons.

We rarely buy foodstuffs we wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because we have coupons. If you don’t stick to that commitment, you could be in for a world of financial hurt. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration.)

If I can buy a can of beans at TJ or Safeway that bears the stores’ labels and pay 89 cents for them, but I can get 25 cents off a can of S&W beans with a coupon, which way should I go? That depends. If the S&W beans cost a dollar with the coupon, you know which way I’m going. But if you simply like the taste of the S&W’s better, enjoy yourself! Of course, coupons don’t only apply to grocery items. I collect coupons for restaurants from the Sunday paper. On occasion I buy a Groupon. But I make it a point never to do so for a restaurant or other establishment where I would not otherwise be spending my money (unless I’m interested in trying a new place.

I have about 150 old LP and cassette music albums (for the youngsters out there, they are ancient forms of recorded albums from the days before CDs came along). Kohl’s was selling a device that allows listeners to play their LPs and cassettes and to record them onto CDs. It cost almost $170, a very good sale price. But for each $50 spent, Kohl’s issued the consumer $10 in Kohl’s Cash, which is essentially a coupon. So, with my $30in Kohl’s Cash I bought a $25 plush bathrobe and a $12 pair of slippers – both on sale (of course). They came to about 40 bucks, including sales tax. I ended up forking over only $10 out of pocket for stuff I needed. By the way, man, I’m really diggin’ listenin’ to my old vinyls and trippin’ back to the days when most of rock was real music.

That’s the upside of coupons. Here are some downers:

  • They induce us to buy junk foods and beverages like potato chips, candy, soda and juice drinks;
  • They induce us to buy additional stuff we don’t need or really want;
  • And, according to financial journalist Faroosh Torabi (www.farnoosh.tv) using coupons often seduces us into spending the money we saved, and more, on other stuff. In the September 1, 2011 issue of Bottom Line Personal¸ she refers a Harvard Business School study that show online shoppers who use a $10 coupon tend to spend $1.59 more than those who don’t use the coupon.
  • Bed Bath and Beyond offers 20 percent off coupons which are frequently a great deal. But you need to compare the pre-coupon price of what you’re buying. While some stuff at BBB is priced well, I have also seen items there for two or three times the price I have seen at Target or Costco.

Here’s something else to watch out for – coupon web sites. I find that frequently they offer coupons good at vendor web sites, which are nothing more than the same offer already available from the vendors. I just ordered a ladder from the Home Depot site that was selling for $168. I checked with several coupon sites. They offered me free-shipping coupons for Home Depot on products that cost at least $45. That’s the exact same deal that Home Depot was offering with no coupon requirement. The best way to get the best price on a particular item is to use one of the discount price comparison sites like Buy.com, ebates.com, or one of the many others. I bought the special- order ladder from Home Depot’s web site because there is a Home Depot store near my home and I can return it there if it doesn’t meet my expectations. Plus, they deliver it right to my house.

In summary, a coupon is only a bargain if it’s for something you already want and you can’t get another, equivalent item for less.

Some Cool Consumer Tips

            I l-o-o-o-ve when I run across cool stuff for consumers. Here are four new factoids that might help – or at least interest – you. 

1 – You know those nutrition labels on packaged foods that tell you about calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, and the like? Well I think they Typical Nutrition Facts lbelare great. Better than great. They’re Gre-e-a-a-t! (I’m not sure if Tony the Tiger spells it that way). I check out what I buy to put into my body. And while I do not eat meat for a variety of reasons, here’s some good news for those who do. Starting January 1, 2012, raw meat and poultry will be required to come with nutrition labels; at least the most common cuts and ground meats will. If this is stuff you’re cut out for, check out the regulations at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OPPDE/rdad/FRPubs/98-005P.htm.

  1. 2 – If you have purchased HDMI cables for your cool electronic equipment (or, as I like to call it, all that electronic junk that we think will make us happier but just drains our savings and makes our retirements that much more bleak) like flat screen TVs Blue Ray players and the like, you know how damned expensive they can be. I have seen them ranging in price from 15 to 40 bucks. It’s a damned cable for Pete’s sake, not that I even know who Pete is. So I did some fishing (not “phishing” or phooling around). And voila, I found a pair of six-phoot cables for less than six bucks, including shipping! There they were on display at Overstock.com, which I now believe is simply O.co (great, another thing to remind me of Oprah Winfrey). So you can spend less than three smackers for each cable (in a pair) or you can get them in a fancy box for 10 times the price. My 3-buck cables work great, thank you very much.

3 – Have you ever checked out government web sites for money that may be owed to you? If your answer is “no,” what are you waiting for? Most states hold money that is coming to folks for a variety of reasons. The most common types of unclaimed property are:

  • Bank accounts and safe deposit box contents
  • Stocks, mutual funds, bonds, and dividends
  • Uncashed cashier’s checks or money orders
  • Certificates of deposit
  • Matured or terminated insurance policies
  • Estates
  • Mineral interests and royalty payments, trust funds, and escrow accounts.

California’s unclaimed property URL is http://www.sco.ca.gov/upd.html. I once found that the Consumer Gal had a modest amount of dough coming her way. Do an online search for your state. In addition, the IRS has nearly $165 million in unclaimed refund checks lying around somewhere. There are 112,000 taxpayers who have not received their 2009 refunds due to mailing address errors. So think back . . . “Hmm, did I ever get that refund from last year? . . .Doh!” If you are missing one, update your address at www.IRS.gov.

4 – Have you ever gone to an emergency room only to discover that the staff thinks that 27 other people’s emergencies are more emergent than yours? So you sit around for hours until you forget why you are there. Well, guess what. A lot of hospitals are okay with you going somewhere where the wait time is shorter. To find out a hospital’s wait time, check its web site or call the hospital. If you have a life-threatening emergency, make the call on your way to the hospital of first choice, providing you are not the one driving. Better yet, first call for an ambulance, then start calling or surfing for emergency rooms.