Muni operators, straddled to a seat all day, have few options for healthy snacks

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerDriver in training Robert Swain purchases a candy bar from the vending machines in the MUNI break room at the corner of Geary and Precidio.

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerDriver in training Robert Swain purchases a candy bar from the vending machines in the MUNI break room at the corner of Geary and Precidio.

Few jobs are more sedentary than being a Muni bus driver, a position that requires workers to sit for long hours with little physical movement. With precious few opportunities for exercise, maintaining a healthy diet should be essential for the operators.

But finding nutritious food sources at driver’s workplaces is usually a fruitless task — pun intended.

Despite former mayor Gavin Newsom’s April 2010 directive that all city agencies provide healthy food options in their vending machines, the dispensers located at Muni division yards are still stocked with sugary candy bars and sodas with zero nutritional value. Spokesman Ron Austin of the Transit Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators, said Muni is the only city agency that hasn’t complied with Newsom’s directive, although The Examiner was unable to confirm that claim.

Although he did not have exact numbers, Austin said that many Muni operators suffer from diabetes, heart problems and other weight-related issues. So he said he’s been pleading with Muni management since March to switch out the candy-laden vending machines with healthier alternatives.

“They complain about our workers’ comp costs and issues of hypertension and obesity,” Austin said. “And I told them that a main way to deal with those issues is to expedite the replacement of our vending machines. The machines are filled with crap, basically.”

For years, Muni has suffered from operator shortages, an issue the agency has consistently cited — along with its aging fleet of vehicles — for its low on-time performance rates. Currently, 266 of the agency’s 2,000 operators are out on long-term medical leave, according to Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni.

Rose said the number of operators out on long-term leave does affect Muni’s service, although he noted that not all of the workers are missing due to weight-related issues.

Most Muni operators come in during early-morning hours and work long shifts without any scheduled lunch breaks, Austin noted. The candy bars in Muni’s division yard vending machines are often their only options for food.

A healthy diet is vital for all workers, regardless of how sedentary their job is, according to Christina Goette, a senior program planner at the Department of Public Health. While Goette said Muni operators should exercise whenever they can — a simple walk around the block is beneficial — changing the food options in the vending machines would be an easy target for health improvement.

“You have to make your environment more conducive to a healthy lifestyle,” Goette said. “Having vending machines with healthy food options is a good strategy.”

Dr. June Fisher, a clinical professor at UC Berkeley’s center for occupational and environmental health, has conducted extensive studies into the health of transit operators. She said she’s been advocating for healthy food options at division yards for years, to little avail.

A lack of real political pressure has stymied efforts for change in the operators’ work environment, Miller said. She’s hopeful that movement may finally be underway to provide healthy food options in vending machines. An even more progressive step would be to provide food trucks with more robust options at Muni work sites.

“It can’t be the same old thing of bad coffee and old doughnuts,” said Miller. “It may be difficult to change that environment, but it can be done, and it’s crucial for the well-being of Muni’s operators.”

Rose said the department takes the health and safety of its employees very seriously. The agency provides exercise rooms and runs yoga classes for its employees, and offers reduced memberships at gyms.

Last month, the agency requested proposals from potential vending machine companies, to ensure that 30 percent of the food options are healthy within the next year. In three years, that total will increase to 50 percent, Rose said. The agency has not selected a vendor yet, although the current food machines do offer options like granola bars and juice, said Rose.

The delay is frustrating to Austin, who said that an employee of the current vending machine company assured him that fresh, healthy food options could be available in a month.

“I just want to know why we can’t take a step forward now,” Austin asked. “Every other city department offers healthy food options. Why can’t Muni?”

Rose said that the process was implemented as fast as possible, but the agency needed to gather specific data required to implement a new vending machine contract.

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