By JULIO MORALES
Staff Writer, Copy Editor
2:47 AM EST, January 10, 2013
A pilot project that aims to add healthier food options to children’s menus is expected to debut at three popular Valley eateries sometime in February.
The project, which is part of the Our Choice program, will take place at Hacienda Market and Johnny’s Burritos in Brawley, as well as both El Centro’s Burgers & Beer sites. Burgers & Beer restaurants in Yuma and La Quinta also will participate.
Once implemented, patrons will be able to choose from a variety of healthy options that project organizers and restaurateurs collaborated on to provide for young children. The pilot project is scheduled to last two months but can become standard fare if maintained by customer interest.
“The three restaurants are really ahead of the curve,” said Our Choice restaurant project coordinator Catherine Fox.
The healthier menu choices are based on the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary recommendations. Children’s menus designed to appeal and entertain youngsters will also accompany the debut of the healthier entrée and side options.
“Everything we’re doing is based on research and best practices,” Fox said.
Currently, customer comment cards asking for feedback about their patronage and eating habits can be found in the three locations and will remain in place during the duration of the pilot project, Fox said.
Once the restaurant pilot project ends, organizers and owners will determine what, if any, changes can and should be made.
“The idea is to create positive changes that can be sustained after the project ends,” Fox said.
The pilot project is part of the Our Choice program, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded study involving 1,200 elementary students in the Valley. The study is taking place over a two-year period under the supervision of various Valley agencies and San Diego State University.
Although Burgers & Beer owner Jaime Honold has been fielding requests for, and providing, healthier fare for some time, the opportunity to target youngsters especially appealed to him.
“With this program we will add even more healthy choices to our menu,” Honold said.
He expects the kids’ menu items to become available starting in February.
At Johnny’s Burritos’ Brawley location, the restaurant will offer a healthier option as a compliment to their existing five entrees, said manager Tiara Gutierrez. Instead of fries, the healthier options will include a choice of grapes, apple slices or carrots as well as water or juice in place of soda.
The popular eatery will also debut three new menu items as part of the pilot project.
The new entrees will include a lean bean burrito, grilled cheese sandwich and a chicken and cheese quesadilla. They will also include the choice of the healthier side.
The popular eatery was approached a few months ago by project organizers. A polling of customers to gauge interest and suggestions was then undertaken, she said.
“It will be nice to go to a ‘fast food restaurant’ and get something for your child that you know is going to be healthy,” Gutierrez said.
While she did note the apparent lack of healthier choices at many fast food restaurants, she acknowledged that parents ultimately have to take greater responsibility if they want their children to adopt a healthier diet and lifestyle.
“You have to make the decisions for them,” Gutierrez said.
Hacienda Market owner Mario Castaneda said young children and teens are common sights in the snack bar, which is located down the street from Miguel Hidalgo Elementary School.
While his place offers half orders on a lot of menu items, he has been stocking up on new healthier items such as ketchup with reduced sugar content.
Whole wheat breads, low-fat milk as well as natural juices made with natural sugars and the incorporation of more white meats such as turkey and chicken will also round out his menu updates.
“If they want to eat it,” Castaneda said, “we’ll have something healthy for them to eat.”
While he does harbor a concern that some products may remain on the shelf and spoil, he is nonetheless committed to the project.
“I’m all for it,” Castaneda said. “I just hope it works.”
Staff Writer, Copy Editor Julio Morales can be reached at 760-337-3415 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press