Solicitation Number: FY15WellnessAmenityProgram
These comments are being submitted jointly by the National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM) and the National Federation of the Blind’s Entrepreneurs Initiative (NFBEI). NABM is the largest membership organization in the country representing the interests of Randolph-Sheppard blind vendors. The NFBEI is a special initiative of the NFB that advocates on behalf of blind entrepreneurs and provides training and technical assistance to state licensing agencies.
Blind entrepreneurs provide vending / food services on literally thousands of federal properties pursuant to the priority afforded to blind entrepreneurs by the Randolph-Sheppard Act. Blind entrepreneurs provide the vast majority of food to federal employees; therefore, the implementation of these guidelines impacts blind entrepreneurs more than anyone else.
NABM/NFBEI want to make it clear that we totally supports giving federal employees choices when making purchases. Those employees who want to eat healthier should have the same opportunity to purchase foods of their choice on federal properties as those who want to eat more traditional snacks and other foods. The employee who wants to eat a granola bar should be able to purchase one from the vending facility whether it is a vending machine or over-the-counter operation. Likewise, the federal employee who wants his Snickers bar should not be denied the opportunity. The federal employee who wants a hamburger should have the same right as the employee who wants a salad. NABM/NFBEI support informed choice.
NABM/NFBEI have demonstrated their commitment to helping blind entrepreneurs provide healthier options to their customers. We conducted a one-day workshop in Washington, D.C. in June, 2015, for blind entrepreneurs and state licensing agency staff. Over 100 people attended the workshop and we provided practical suggestions on how to best meet the needs of customers who want to eat healthier. We conducted a webinar in conjunction with the Hadley School for the Blind, which was designed to further educate blind entrepreneurs about this important issue. We endorsed the National Automatic Merchandising Associations’ Fit Pick program as our national standard and have sent out a number of communications to the Randolph-Sheppard community urging them to make products that meet the Fit Pick criteria available to their customers. We fully support education and a market driven approach whereby those who want healthier foods determine what will be sold in a vending facility. We oppose limiting product availability as a way of changing people’s eating habits because there is no evidence that denying access to certain foods in the workplace in any way improves health. We support guidelines. We oppose mandates. We support collaboration. We oppose unilateral demands. We support enhancing the incomes of our blind entrepreneurs by making healthier options available for sale. We oppose unreasonable restrictions that create a financial burden on our blind entrepreneurs. We support a multi-pronged approach to creating a healthier workforce. We oppose doing so on the backs of blind entrepreneurs.
First, we want to address concerns with the guidelines themselves before addressing issues with implementation.
- Calorie Disclosure – These guidelines attempt to force menu and product labeling on all providers of food services in federal buildings. The guidelines cite the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as its authority for doing so. However, the law cited only requires calorie disclosure by those retail establishments with 20 or more locations or in the case of vending machines 20 or more vending machines. GSA does not have the authority to require more than the law does. Congress’ intentions are very clear. It did not want the labeling requirement to be burdensome on small businesses. Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs are small business owners and many will not meet the threshold of the law and cannot be required to label their machines as required by these guidelines.
- 25% Requirement – We do not object to establishing 25% as a target when it comes to snack items that should meet the guidelines. We oppose an absolute hard requirement. There must be flexibility because there are vast differences in eating preferences in different geographic locations and even in different buildings within a geographic area. The blind entrepreneur must have flexibility to meet the demands of his/her customers and to not be put in the position of having to throw out unsold stale merchandise.
There have been many obstacles to implementing these guidelines.
- Shrinking Federal Footprint – The federal government is downsizing and more and more employees are tele-commuting . The result is there are fewer potential customers for Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs. Consequently, profits are spiraling downward. And now, blind entrepreneurs are being asked to take another financial hit with implementation of these guidelines.
- Lack of Incentives – GSA has ignored creating incentives, financial or otherwise, for blind entrepreneurs to comply with these requirements. It has shown little interest or empathy for blind entrepreneurs who face lower incomes or even being put out of business. GSA must understand that in most federal buildings sales are not significant. If forcing these guidelines on blind entrepreneurs in certain locations results in a facility closing or vending machines being removed, there will likely be no one rushing in to fill the void and federal employees will have access to no food – healthy or otherwise.
- Lack of a Comprehensive Approach – The goal of achieving a healthier workforce requires a comprehensive approach, which is lacking here. It requires education. It requires the opportunity for more exercise. It requires incentives to live healthier lifestyles and a price to pay for those who choose not to live healthy. However, there is little evidence that such a comprehensive approach exists. It would appear that the only focus here is on diet and restricting access to certain foods. Nicky Gacos, President of NABM, proposed to GSA that space be provided in federal buildings for employee workout centers to be operated by blind entrepreneurs. Such workout centers would contribute to the health of the employees and would help blind entrepreneurs recoup some of the income they have been losing. The SLA’s could purchase the workout equipment and the blind entrepreneurs could sell memberships. In those areas, blind entrepreneurs could possibly offer 100% healthier items. It is a well established fact that people who workout and get adequate exercise tend to eat better.
- Facility Designs – A major obstacle to Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs offering healthier items to their customers is the deliberate strategy of GSA to limit the size and scope of Randolph-Sheppard vending facilities. There are far too many examples where GSA has provided the bare minimum of space with no running water. The facilities are not large enough to install the type of equipment needed to offer such things as salads and fresh fruit. In some of the larger buildings, there are commercial food service operations. These cafeterias offer healthier options. There is not a demand in these locations for a second outlet for healthier choices.
- Lack of Quantifiable Data – GSA has failed to offer any data that suggests that limiting food choices in vending facilities in any way is a factor in the health of its employees. In the absence of such data, it is difficult to convince blind entrepreneurs to change what has proven to work in terms of sales.
- Fear of Blind Entrepreneurs – Blind vendors rely on sales to earn a living. They have house payments, buy groceries, have children to educate, etc. They feel threatened by actions that could impact their livelihoods. Throwing away product that doesn’t sell is throwing away money and most blind entrepreneurs cannot afford to lose income.
- Inability to Get Product – Blind entrepreneurs are faced with two problems in this regard. First, unlike Fit Pick, there is no list of products that meet the guidelines available. When ordering product, there is no way to know what products do or do not meet the guidelines. Secondly, wholesalers do not carry many of the products that do meet the criteria. Sometimes, the blind entrepreneur must go to several suppliers in order o find product. This is both a timely and costly process and sometimes impossible since most blind vendors rely on wholesalers who deliver since they don’t drive and cannot go pick up product. If the distributors who deliver in their area do not carry the products, their hands are tied.
- Cost of Product – Many of the healthier items that meet the criteria cost more than traditional snacks. This necessitates a higher selling price. There is a price point whereby customers will not buy and that point is sometimes below the profit margin required by the entrepreneur. Many state licensing agencies have profit margins their vendors are required to meet; therefore, there must be a standard mark-up which makes some of these items very expensive for the customer.
- Confusion Over Standards – There are too many standards out there and none of them are the same. It is almost impossible for blind entrepreneurs to keep track of them and the GSA guidelines are different from all of the rest. The vending community is familiar with Fit Pick. Blind entrepreneurs understand the criteria and know what products meet he standard and where they can get the product.
- Size of Facilities – Many Randolph-Sheppard locations have only one or two vending machines. These guidelines anticipate much larger food service establishments. If there is only one snack and one drink machine, it is much more difficult to meet the guidelines. There must be flexibility in these smaller locations
- Lack of Demand – Although these guidelines were implemented five years ago, the fact remains that very few customers are demanding healthier options. Our blind entrepreneurs are businesspeople who respond to their customers. If there was the demand, the blind entrepreneurs would naturally respond accordingly.
- Permits – GSA has unilaterally chosen to utilize the permitting process to attempt to change these “guidelines” to “requirements.” We believe GSA does not have the authority to either unilaterally amend permits or require language in new permits. We do not believe that GSA has the authority to make these guidelines mandatory.
- GSA and the CDC Have Created an Adversarial Relationship – As the result of a pattern of actions aimed at diminishing the presence of blind vendors on federal properties and limiting incomes of those blind entrepreneurs, GSA has created an adversarial relationship with the Randolph-Sheppard community. The situation was only made worse by negative comments made by a CDC representative toward blind vendors. GSA and the CDC have created an environment whereby collaboration is very difficult. Implementing these guidelines cannot be viewed in a vacuum. They can only be considered in the context of GSA’s overall attitude toward Randolph-Sheppard. That attitude as evidenced by its actions does little to motivate the Randolph-Sheppard community to embrace this initiative.
It has been suggested that GSA intends to make the guidelines more stringent. NABM/NFBEI strongly urge GSA to not do that. Little progress has been made toward implementing the current guidelines. Developing stricter guidelines would only be counterproductive. Full implementation of the current guidelines must occur before stricter guidelines are considered.
GSA is seeking information on where implementation of the guidelines has not achieved its stated goal. Ironically, the CDC in Atlanta is a perfect example. The blind entrepreneur who operates the cafeteria there was apparently required to discontinue the sale of traditional entrees and replace them with healthier choices. According to our blind entrepreneur, the result was fewer customers bought entrees and more ate food from the grill. In other words, the healthier foods drove employees to the less healthy options. Interestingly, CDC employees have been very vocal in their complaints to the blind entrepreneur about the change.
We would be derelict if we failed to reference instances where initiating healthy vending guidelines has worked. In Chicago, all of the federal agencies, the state licensing agency, and blind entrepreneurs came together to develop a strategy for federal buildings in the Chicago area. Through collaboration, the group chose the Fit Pick standards and established a percentage of products that would have to meet that standard. That is an example of how it should work as opposed to the strategy employed by GSA.
NABM would make the following recommendations:
- The guidelines should clearly state that they are suggestive in nature and not directive and offer flexibility in their implementation at individual locations.
- GSA should simplify the process by adopting Fit Pick as an alternative standard to use in vending machines. Admittedly, the Fit Pick guidelines are less restrictive than the current guidelines; however, greater buy-in by the blind entrepreneurs would be assured and the result would be an increase in healthier products available for sale in Randolph-Sheppard facilities.
- The guidelines should be modified to clearly indicate that the calorie disclosure requirement only applies to retail entities with 20 or more locations and vending companies or blind entrepreneurs with 20 or more vending machines.
- GSA should follow the lead of Congress and only apply these guidelines to facilities that meet certain criteria such as number of vending machines, square footage of the space, number of employees in the building on a daily basis. etc. GSA should work with the Randolph-Sheppard community to determine when the guidelines are applicable.
- GSA should do the research and create a list of products that meet the criteria for use by Randolph-Sheppard entrepreneurs. The list should only include items carried by the larger wholesale distributors.
- GSA should immediately cease efforts to make these guidelines requirements by inserting them in permits.
- GSA should create incentives for blind entrepreneurs to want to enforce these guidelines.
- GSA should initiate a process whereby its regional representatives and the appropriate SLA conduct an analysis of each Randolph-Sheppard vending facility and a plan developed to upgrade the facilities so that more products can be offered for sale and sales and profits increased.
- GSA should work with the Randolph-Sheppard community, at least as a pilot project, to create employee workout centers to be managed by blind entrepreneurs.
- GSA should strive to rehabilitate its relationship with Randolph-Sheppard to create an environment of collaboration so these guidelines can be better utilized.
We appreciate the opportunity to offer these comments and look forward to working collaboratively with GSA to ensure that federal employees have the opportunity to make informed choices when purchasing product from a blind entrepreneur.
Nicky Gacos Terry C. Smith
NABM President NFBEI Director