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City Snack Plan Worries Vendor

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
       Richard Derganc is afraid the mayor's health kick will put him out of business.
    As a blind veteran, Derganc operates the vending machines at City Hall, where Mayor Martin Chávez plans to ban the sale of candy bars and other unhealthy items.
    Chávez wants the machines stocked with nuts, tea and other fare that meets certain health standards.
    But Derganc, who has two employees, argues that people just don't buy enough of the nutritional stuff to support vending-machine operations.
    Healthy products "aren't anything we can build a business on," he said Thursday. "We have fruit snacks, popcorn and nuts in the machines. They're just not big sellers."
    He estimates that he will lose at least half his sales and be forced out of business.
    Irene Garcia, Albuquerque's chief operations officer, isn't convinced. She said people will buy low-fat milk and healthy food if they're available.
    "When you get a snack attack," she said, "you're going to buy something, and if that's what's in the machine, that's what you're going to buy."
    The mayor met with several vendors Thursday morning but isn't backing away from his executive order on healthy foods. Chávez is willing to compromise, however, on when the ban takes effect.
    In announcing the switch to healthy foods this week, the mayor cited the rising cost of health care and a concern for the well-being of employees. Only foods that contain less than a certain percentage of calories from fat will be allowed in the machines.
    Diet soda, tea, low-fat milk, nuts, cereal bars and beef jerky are expected to qualify, city officials said.
    Potato chips, donuts and the like are out.
    Derganc is one of seven blind contractors who work with the city through an agreement with the Commission for the Blind, a state agency.
    State law gives a preference to people who are blind for running vending machines on state, county and municipal property. The city has 308 vending machines in its buildings, such as community centers, City Hall and police headquarters.
    The vending-machine operators say they're willing to compromise a bit, but the all-health-food mandate is "economically unviable," said Greg Trapp, executive director of the Commission for the Blind.
    "When we try to implement an all-healthy-choice option ... the sales just fall through the floor," Trapp said.
    Vendors could place healthy options more prominently in the machines, Trapp said, or they might be able to alter the mix of offerings a bit. He said machines already carry healthy products, they just do not sell much.
    If a compromise isn't reached, the vending machines might not stay in city buildings, Trapp said.
    "We will have to look at the vending machines we do have and determine which, if any, are going to be viable," he said. "Right now, we're not at all encouraged as to whether we'll be able to maintain vending machines on city property."
    Just how much the switch would impact sales is a matter of debate.
    Albuquerque Public Schools recently switched to healthier drinks in its vending machines. A Pepsi official said last year that sales were about 70 percent lower than they were in the peak of 2002.
    But school regulations don't exactly match city plans, so a drop at City Hall may differ.
    Schools, for example, installed timers that regulate after-lunch sales of some drinks, among other things.
    APS couldn't immediately provide any figures.
    Garcia said the mayor is working with the Commission for the Blind on a transition schedule.
    "There's some good stuff that can go in those machines," she said. "He very much wants to continue the relationship with the Commission for the Blind."
    The commission doesn't sound optimistic.
    "We continue to put good food in those machines, and people don't buy it," said Arthur Schreiber, chairman of the commission. "What subsidizes the good foods are the candy, potato chips and soda."