Article by Health Commissioner Allen Beals on Eat Smart Restaurant Week receives statewide attention in the NYSAC News Magazine

Eat Smart Restaurant Week Putnam County Program Promotes Health, Supports Local Businesses

Posted on February 9, 2015 by NYSAC

By Allen Beals, MD, JD, The Commissioner of Health in Putnam County

Good nutrition is important for a long and healthy life, and local economies benefit from a strong restaurant sector. The intersection of these realities, coupled with the fact that chronic disease and obesity prevention tops the NYS Department of Health’s Prevention Agenda 2013-2017, led the Putnam County Department of Health to plan and implement a two-week restaurant event, entitled Eat Smart Restaurant Week (ESRW). The phrase “eat smart” was selected over “eat healthy,” based on the fact that the notion of “healthy” eating may be a turn-off for many, conjuring up images of a plate of steamed broccoli. The initiative was designed to spotlight the concept that “healthy and delicious can go hand in hand,” and to attract customers who were interested in both tasty offerings and good health.

Many factors contribute to the epidemic of obesity and the associated illnesses of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Among the risk factors identified by public health researchers is a trend for Americans to consume more “away-from-home foods” than ever before. These foods often have more calories, salt and fats than home cooked meals, and are served in bigger portions as well.

Putnam County Department of Health (PCDOH) food sanitarians have worked closely with its food operators on food safety issues for decades. In fact, ensuring food safety is a fundamental health department activity. In recent years, the PCDOH’s sanitarians have expanded their role beyond informing and educating around regulations and compliance issues. The department began hosting an annual Food Operators Seminar in 2007 to provide a forum to educate about new trends in the food industry. Although the one-day program is not mandated, the event has been well attended each of the eight years it has been held. Typically nearly 40 percent of the county’s 377 food establishments attend. In addition to disseminating information and education, the gathering has been used to “read the pulse” of restaurateurs and other food preparers, to assess what training needs may be going unmet and to identify new areas of potential collaboration.

National Restaurant News, the leading trade publication for the food service industry, has reported that customers say they will eat out less frequently due to concerns about their health. Putnam food operators were aware of this market forecast and additionally felt that they might be missing out on a growing market of more health conscious diners. The ESRW concept was conceived to address this trend and had its early launch to the local industry at the March 2014 seminar. A panel discussion was held with local Putnam farmers, chefs, restaurateurs, the Health Commissioner and a manager from the Putnam County Planning Department. In addition, presentations were made by a PCDOH food sanitarian and a nutritionist, all of which served as a springboard to move the project forward and gain support from food operators.

Since there was no registration fee for participating restaurants, this new event could not only highlight more Putnam restaurants, but also could include a broader variety of food establishments, important given the fact that “away-from-home-foods” are not solely limited to dine-in restaurants. By the time ESRW kicked off in September 2014 for its two-week stretch, 35 Putnam eateries were on board. Restaurants, deli or counterstyle establishments, one “fastfood” chain and a few cafeteria-style operations all were eager to work closely with health department nutritionists. Together they finely tuned selected menu items to ensure they were both delicious and healthy.

Participants were allowed to submit between two to five recipes and a pre-established four-point criteria system was used to assess the selections. Health department nutritionists formulated the guidelines based on evidence-based practice and analyzed the recipe submissionsall at no cost to the restaurant operators. The four principles included moderate portion sizes for meat, poultry, fish, cheese, pastas and grains; an emphasis on fresh, local vegetables; healthy oils, also in moderation, and finally, salt and high sodium ingredients used sparingly. Our nutritionists, working with the chefs, tweaked each recipe until it was acceptable under our healthy choice criteria.

ESRW kicked-off with a press event, unveiling a specially designed ESRW event logo at one of the early participating restaurants. Further news releases included announcements when new restaurant menus selections were approved and “photo ops” when “participating restaurant” signage was put on display at individual locales. Marketing included media releases, social media posts, online publication and calendar listings utilized by the PCDOH; advertising dollar support from the Putnam County Tourism Office, as well as full endorsements from Putnam’s Economic Development Corporation and the Office of the County Executive. Pre-event publicity also included a 30-minute television production which aired opening week on “Good Day Hudson Valley,” featuring three owner chefs and health department staff.

Plans are already underway for the 2015 ESRW, scheduled for September 27 through October 11. Customer satisfaction survey results from the inaugural event have been collected and are being analyzed. Food operators and other stakeholders are being formally and informally solicited for their opinions, with ongoing face-to-face feedback, and a planned survey and focus groups at next year’s seminar. This input will be used to improve next year’s event.

By developing and strengthening these business and community partnerships, employing social marketing and a comprehensive promotional campaign, the Putnam County Department of Health has reimagined what public health can do to educate and inspire the public to make more informed and healthier choices in their diet.