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:,%202012/203860359/TMPKeyboard203876916.pdf