A program launched last fall sought to help people make healthier choices when dining at restaurants and shopping for groceries.
“Overall, it’s a success. We will have more data eventually that we can share with people. We will be doing post surveys at restaurants and stores and with customers within the next month, so we will see not just the sales data, but people will be telling us.
“I think people need to see that, too. Did it really make a difference? Are people willing to order something healthier? Are restaurants willing to stay on board?” said Bev Hall, who is the coordinator for the Waupaca County NuAct (Nutrition/Activity) Coalition.
NuAct formed in 2003 after nutrition and inactivity surfaced as health concerns in Waupaca County. The coalition believes the best way to approach the issue of obesity is to create environments that promote healthy eating and physically active lifestyles.
The Waupaca Eating Smart program began last October in seven local restaurants and was then launched at Gary’s Piggly Wiggly and Pick ‘n Save.
Called “WES” for short, the eating smart program wanted to help restaurants become places where it is easy for customers to order a satisfying yet healthy meal and to promote healthy, bundled meals at grocery stores.
At the grocery stores, food tastings were offered and copies of recipes were available. Signage promoted fruits or vegetables, recipes, produce identification guides, take-home materials with cooking tips and recipes for seasonal produce.
The overall goals of WES were to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables and to decrease caloric intake.
A survey of almost 200 city residents, conducted by the coalition in the spring of 2011, showed that seven out of 10 Waupaca residents wanted fresh and healthy items marked on menus. Those surveyed also wanted more fruit and vegetables on the menu for adults and children.
“We’re getting good feedback,” Hall said of the program.
Some of that feedback is from Jim King, who served as its spokesperson.
Over the course of the program, he visited each of the seven participating restaurants twice, ordered one of their WES items and then wrote about his experience in a column that appeared in the County Post West.
To take part in WES, the restaurants agreed to add more fruit and vegetables to their entrees and side dishes, to offer some full meals with 700 calories or less and to consider updating some recipes to reduce total calories, fat or portion size.
NuAct reached out to local restaurants to start the program. The Waupaca Woods Restaurant, Waupaca Ale House, Cronies, Sisters Fine Deli, TW Martin’s Public House, Weasels and Culvers participated.
When King was out and about, he was often asked, “Where are you eating today?” and “Did you lose weight?”
Some thought the program was a diet, but he explained that it was about sometimes wanting to eat healthier.
Choosing healthier menu items over the course of six months and also eating less when dining out did result in King losing a few pounds.
“I probably lost two or three pounds,” he said. “I went to eat 14 times (for WES) on top of the usual eating out and the holidays, and I didn’t gain weight. I actually lost a couple pounds.”
Hall said one of the things they wanted to accomplish was making it easier to find healthier choices in restaurants and grocery stores.
“People are recognizing the signage,” she said.
King’s participation in the program has changed how and what he orders at restaurants.
“Now, I find myself always asking for dressing on the side for salads,” he said. “I always have one-third to one-fourth left.”
In addition, he found himself ordering things he never would have before, including salmon.
“I would have missed out,” King said. “Now, several of them are my favorites.”
He also finds himself looking for similar, healthier choices when dining at other restaurants.
“Once you start doing it, it becomes a no-brainer,” he said. “Eating healthier is easier to do than anything else.”
Hall said that at least two more businesses – and possibly more – will be coming on board.
“Now that the funding is done and everything is in place, we don’t want everything to go away. We worked with the restaurants and came up with new inserts for each of them to promote other WES-approved items,” she said.
NuAct received technical support for this project from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Population Health Sciences and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Funding for WES was provided by a grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program, based at UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.
Hall said NuAct will continue to sponsor the program and will meet with each of the current businesses to offer options and analysis.
“People coming from larger cities often have more choices there,” she said. “We’d like to somehow promote that Waupaca is a healthy place.”
Hall says restaurants can do so by incorporating more fruits and vegetables into their menus and by purchasing produce from local farm markets.
“People want to know where their food is coming from,” she said.