At a press conference yesterday the L.A. County Department of Public Health announced a new initiative that aims to fight the growing childhood obesity rate in California. Nearly 17 percent of low-income children between the ages of 2 and 4 are obese — the highest rate in the nation.
The initiative is called "Healthy Eating Out," and unlike other nutritional awareness programs the county has funded over the years — which usually focus on healthy eating at home or at schools — this one takes a different tack: convincing families to eat better when they go out to restaurants and, in some cases, convincing the restaurants themselves to scale down their portion sizes or eliminate unhealthy options such as french fries and soda.
"A meal away from home can be viewed as a special occasion, but it gets tricky if you are eating out four or five times a week," says Dr. Paul Simon, the health department's director of chronic disease and injury prevention. According to recent studies, Americans now spend more on eating out than they do on groceries, which has prompted concerns over the larger amounts of salt, fat and calories usually consumed at both sit-down and fast food restaurants when compared with cooking at home.
L.A. County aims to convince its 30,000-plus restaurants to shift their menus through a partnership with local community groups and the California Restaurant Association, which suggests limits on fried foods and sugary drinks displayed on children's menus and smaller servings of existing menu items. The program is voluntary, and no direct incentives are being offered for businesses that make the change. "Originally we tried to share information on healthy dining options during restaurant inspections," Simon says, "but it was confusing for restaurant owners to combine legally required inspections with suggestions that were completely optional."
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The largest targets for the program are restaurants located in lower-income communities, where limited dining options often lead to cheap food served in large quantities. But will that hurt business and leave customers feeling unsatisfied?
"There have been several studies that show offering smaller portions as an option can actually help a business make money," Simon says. "We've found that many restaurants don't know their customers as well as they think they do. There is interest from people in these communities in smaller servings and healthier options, and we're enabling them to make the change."
Currently the county claims that 700 restaurants are enrolled in its program, through a list posted on the program's website, Choose Health L.A., includes a much smaller number. Participants include La Azteca Tortilleria in East L.A., El Coraloense in Bell Gardens and La Huasteca in Lynwood.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of "Healthy Eating Out," however is not its ambitious scope but its limited funding. The grant provided by California's First 5 program runs out in mid-2017.