Torlakson battles blind vendors

For years, Senator Tom Torlakson has been trying to get healthier snacks into vending machines on state property. And for years, groups representing the blind have been fighting to stop him.

This may sound like a highly unusual battle, but there’s a simple explanation: Since 1937, blind vendors in California have had the right to operate thousands of snack-vending machines on state property. The state law followed the federal Randolph Sheppard Act.

This law, passed in 1936 as the nation was seeking to grow jobs and recover from the Great Depression, gave blind people preferences in running vending machines on public property. Most states in the country now have blind vendors, said Michael Hatch, chairman of the California Vendors Policy Committee, a state government agency that governs California’s blind vendors.

The law also created a nationwide interest group. Hatch and others say that mandates to stock healthy snacks cut into their income while doing little to promote public health, for the simple reason that healthy snacks don’t sell.
“You can’t force the public to buy healthier choice items,” Hatch said. “We can’t create the demand.”

Torlakson’s current effort to get healthier foods in state vending machines is SB 441, which currently sits in the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. Last year, it was SB 254, and in 2004 it was SB 74. Both died in committees.

Long known as one of the Legislature’s staunchest advocates for healthy habits, Torlakson is also one of its fittest members. He once finished the last three hours of a triathlon while bleeding from a serious fall on his bicycle. Last year, he used his role as chairman of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness to bring in ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes to promote healthy snacks.

His office has put forth numerous statistics to show the need for legislation calling for healthier snacks in vending machines: Schoolchildren get 40 percent of their calories from fats and sugars; half of kids eat less than one serving of fruits or vegetables a day, and much of what they do get is fried; soda consumption has more than doubled since the late 1970s; and being overweight is the biggest health problem for children today.

All of this may be true, blind vendors say. But they say that disagree with Torlakson’s solution and how he has gone about pursuing it.

“There was never any attempt by Torlakson to get our involvement,” said Dan Kysor, director of governmental affairs for the California Council of the Blind.

Amanda Purcell, policy director for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, has a different take. Blind vendors aren’t willing to try to develop a market for healthy snacks–and will continue to suffer from a chicken-or-egg problem until they try. Healthier snacks or often lower-fat chips and pretzels, she said, will continue to sell, not perishable fruit and items people don’t buy. There have been numerous successful pilot projects, she said, including one in Kaiser Permanente facilities.

“It’s difficult to have a discussion on this issue when they’re not willing to compromise,” Purcell said. “The blind vendors have made it clear from the beginning that they’re not interested in having any mandates put on them.”

Janet Leader, coordinator for the Bay Area Nutrition & Physical Activity Collaborative, pointed to a mandate passed in San Jose calling for city-owned machines to have 50 percent healthier snacks–100 percent in libraries. They brought in a panel of 20 children and 20 adults from the working-class communities that use many of the machines, had them taste products and decide what they wanted in the machines.

They’re been tracking the success of the new products since October and are encouraged by the results. Leader emphasized that the snacks in question were often typical snack foods, just ones on the lower fat/higher fiber end of the spectrum, such as corn nuts.

“These choices that are in the machines, I would call them ‘healthier,'” Leader said. “You’re not going to build your diet around Corn Nuts.”

Earlier this month, Torlakson amended SB 441, lowering the percentage of food in machines required to meet minimum health standards from 50 percent by the end of 2009 to 35 percent. But blind vendors remain opposed.

Vendors regulated through the CVPC operate around 2,600 vending machines on public property and sublease the right to operate 3,500 more. Some of these are on city, county or federal property, Hatch said, but most are on state property–and therefore would be subject to Torlakson’s bill.

Hatch said that because he can’t drive, he has employees who actually visit and stock the machines; he said some blind vendors have food delivered on site and actually do the work themselves. The CVPC actually buys the machines out of a fund paid by the blind vendors, who pay in up to 6 percent of their gross receipts.

Oddly, Hatch said he sells far more healthy snacks in his machines than the average vendor. The reason, he said, is his location–Corcoran State Prison, which holds many of the state’s most notorious prisoners, as well as an attached substance-abuse treatment facility for inmates. Many of his machines are in the visiting area, where prisoners buy up fresh strawberries and other foods they can’t get inside the main lockup.

But he warns his vending location, and his customers, are very unusual.

“I hear Charlie Manson is a vegetarian,” Hatch said.

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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