CDC grant helps Clark County menus get healthful makeovers

Voluntary program sets limits on sodium, fat

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoA Mint Tea salad special of arugula, yam and eggplant tossed in a tahini vinaigrette and topped with pumpkin seeds is ready for a customer at the restaurant Thursday. Mint Tea chefs uses fresh, local ingredients as much as possible and make everything from scratch.

(/The Columbian)

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Do you want to see healthier options on restaurant menus?

  • Yes. I’m trying to eat more healthful meals. 66%
  • I don’t care. I choose whatever sounds best. 10%
  • No. I like to splurge when I eat at restaurants. 3%
  • Yes. But I don’t always order them. 21%

29 total votes.

Restaurant menus across the county may soon be getting a makeover.

Clark County Public Health is launching a voluntary program for local restaurants wanting to make their menu offerings healthier. The free program, which is now in the pilot phase, will open up to neighborhood restaurants later this year.

"We really see this as a win-win for both customers and the businesses," said Melissa Martin, with the health department's chronic disease prevention program.

A survey by the National Restaurant Association found 71 percent of adults are trying to eat healthier at restaurants. As a result, restaurants are adding more healthful dishes to their menus, according to the association.

And diners are noticing; 86 percent of adults said they see more healthful options at restaurants today than they did two years ago, according to the survey.

For the last year, a committee of community members, restaurant owners and health officials has been working with staff from PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center's food service department and the culinary program at Clark College. The group developed a new, voluntary program, called Healthy Neighborhood Restaurants, for locally owned, independent restaurants.

A recent $292,500 Sodium Reduction in Communities grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will support and enhance the county's new program, Martin said.

The committee drafted a program application and a list of criteria participants must meet. Among the criteria: menus include a healthy option in each category offered (appetizers, salads, entrees, sides, etc.); smaller or half portions are available to customers and listed on menus; a healthier side substitution is available at no charge; and children's menus include healthy options and offer the healthiest side option as the default.

The committee established nutrition requirements for dishes to be considered healthy. The county will use a computer program to analyze restaurant recipes to determine whether they meet the requirements or need to be modified, Martin said.

The program also requires restaurants to make information about healthy options available to customers in menus or on table tops. That includes indicating if the restaurant has seasonal fruits and vegetables, 1 percent or nonfat milk, grilled or baked food, vegetarian options, lower sodium foods or foods without artificial trans-fat or added sugar.

The sodium reduction grant will allow the county to enhance the program by hiring a chef to provide consultations to restaurant owners, Martin said. The chef consultant can provide group and individual culinary instruction on how to enhance flavors without adding sodium, she said.

"Most sodium people consume is not coming from the salt shaker; it's coming from processed foods and restaurants," Martin said.

According to the CDC, about 90 percent of Americans are eating more sodium than is recommended for a healthy diet. And most of that sodium comes from foods purchased at retail stores (65 percent) and restaurants (25 percent), according to the CDC.

Jenna Eckert, owner of Mint Tea in Uptown Village, is a member of the county committee and is one of the local restaurant owners taking part in the program's pilot phase.

"This is so important," Eckert said. "It's really who we are already. What Mint Tea is all about."

At Mint Tea, chefs use fresh, local ingredients as much as possible and make everything from scratch, Eckert said.

Menu items often include, or come with, fresh fruit or veggies. They don't serve dishes loaded with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. And customers have numerous gluten-free and vegan options, she said.

Eckert got involved because she wanted to help encourage other restaurants to think about the food they're serving and how they can make their menus healthier. Even slight changes, such as offering smaller portion sizes, can make a difference, she said.

"People are looking at their health more closely," Eckert said. "And food is an important piece."


Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.