MARTINEZ -- Gone are the high-calorie candy bars, cookies and sugar-laden soft drinks.
The 30 vending machines at the Contra Costa County hospital, clinics and health services administration buildings now offer only nutritious items as part of a campaign to encourage healthful snacking.
On Tuesday, county leaders held a taste-test in front of the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center cafeteria to familiarize patients and employees with the new fare and determine which items are likely to be the most popular.
How about some reduced-fat Cheez-Its? Or Apple Pear Sobe Life Water? Have a hankering for a puffed popcorn-like offering called Pirate's Booty Snack?
Jill Honeyman, safety and disaster coordinator for the county hospital, was pleasantly surprised as she tasted some of the snacks Tuesday.
"They're tasty, and they look like the regular snacks that you would buy at any vending machine," she said. "I really like this idea. I probably will purchase more snacks because of this."
Health services director William Walker oversaw the transformation of the vending machines as a way to help the county serve as a role model for patients and their families as health leaders tackle the obesity crisis.
"In some cases ... our staff are in one room actively counseling patients against drinking sodas and eating junk food while these products are being sold at a profit by the health center on the other side of the same wall," Walker said in a letter explaining the change to employees.
The requirements for what can appear in the vending machines are similar to those in California schools, said Tracey Rattray, director of county community wellness prevention programs.
Among the restrictions:
Based on the taste tests, including one Wednesday at the Richmond Health Center, the county will consider switching some of the snacks, but all will meet the requirements, Rattray said.
When the county first installed the healthful items in the hospital vending machines a year ago, sales dropped for about six months, then climbed back to nearly where they were at before, said April Leighton, president of Quality Vending Systems.
Food and beverage manufacturers, realizing an increased demand for such products, are producing more items that meet the requirements and appeal to taste buds, Leighton said.
For that reason, she doesn't expect sales to dip as much with the vending machines installed last week at health centers and other locations.
"Even in businesses, we're seeing the same trends," Leighton said. "More and more companies are choosing to have at least half of their vending machines with healthy choices."
Contact Sandy Kleffman at 925-943-8249.